Wildfire smoke stretches over the GOUSA, coast to coast

The massive Bootleg Fire in Oregon has scorched an area larger than Los Angeles, and it’s only 30% contained. The fire is so large and is burning so hot that it’s creating its own weather.

It’s just one of the many blazes raging in the West; the National Interagency Fire Center is watching 80 large fires across 13 states this week – a testament to just how destructive the US wildfire season has become…And the effects of the fires stretch all the way to the East Coast

In some areas, the smoke has reached the ground level, where it can be a health concern. Air quality alerts have been issued hundreds of miles from the flames, as far east as Pennsylvania and New York.

Never seen it this bad in New Mexico in all the years I’ve lived here.

Borg DNA from California mud

Taking DNA samples from temporary springtime pond

In the TV series Star Trek, the Borg are cybernetic aliens that assimilate humans and other creatures as a means of achieving perfection. So when Jill Banfield, a geomicrobiologist at the University of California, Berkeley, sifted through DNA in the mud of her backyard and discovered a strange linear chromosome that included genes from a variety of microbes, her Trekkie son proposed naming it after the sci-fi aliens. The new type of genetic material was a mystery. Maybe it was part of a viral genome. Maybe it was a strange bacterium. Or maybe it was just an independent piece of DNA existing outside of cells…

But Banfield wasn’t looking for DNA that could move between organisms. Instead, she and graduate student Basem Al-Shayeb were searching for viruses that infect archaea, a type of microbe often found in places devoid of oxygen. They would dig 1 meter or more below the surface and collect mud samples that might harbor archaea and their viruses. Next, they would sequence every stretch of DNA in the samples and use sophisticated computer programs to scan for sequences that signified a virus, rather than any other organism…

Banfield says she and her colleagues don’t really know how Borgs arose, but they suspect that at one time, the DNA sequences were the genomes of a close relative of Methanoperedens that got scooped up and began living inside the archaeon. Eventually only the DNA, now much modified, remains inside the microbe, but apart from its own chromosome…

Interesting read. Hope it encourages other scientists (and science-minded curious folk) to duplicate the experiments.

COVID-19 vaccine warnings don’t mean it’s unsafe – it’s proof the system to report side effects is working

While the COVID-19 vaccines currently available in the U.S. have been proved to be safe and effective, recent reports of rare adverse events, or side effects, have raised concerns. On July 12, 2021, the Food and Drug Administration approved an update to the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine fact sheet to include an increased risk of the rare nerve condition Guillain-Barré syndrome. This follows previous reports linking the J&J vaccine with a rare blood clot.

While reports like these can be scary, they’re a sign that the vaccine safety reporting system is working. They also highlight how the relative risks of rare side effects like these need to be put into context…

A rare adverse event may take months or years to identify for a simple reason: It’s rare. For some drugs that are less commonly used, new safety data takes longer to discover because a relatively small number of patients use the drug…For cases like the COVID-19 vaccine, however, millions of people will receive the drug shortly after it’s released to the public, and new issues or patterns often emerge more quickly.

This can lead to two problems.

First, not every reported adverse event is directly related to the vaccine…Second, a plausibly identified adverse event does not necessarily make the vaccine unsafe.

In such extraordinary times as during a pandemic, it’s understandable that people may be hesitant to take on any more risk than they have to. But there are safety nets in place to monitor the COVID-19 vaccines, and they are still working as they should.

Being aware of the risks of a treatment, however rare, can help people make health decisions that work best for them…And in the case of the COVID-19 vaccines, they must be weighed against the consequences of remaining unvaccinated and letting the pandemic rage on.

Emphasis added.

At most, 7% of the human genome is unique to our species

Will Oliver/PA Images

No more than 7% of the human genome is unique to Homo sapiens, according to a study published Friday in the journal Science Advances.

We share the remaining chunks of our genetic material with other human ancestors, or hominins, including our Neanderthal cousins and the Denisovans first discovered in east Asia.

“The evolutionary family tree shows there are regions of our genome that make us uniquely human,” Richard Green, director of the paleogenomics lab at the University of California, Santa Cruz and co-author of the new study, told Insider. “Now we have a catalog of those, and it’s a surprisingly small fraction of the genome…”

“More or less everywhere we look, admixture is not the exception at all, but rather the rule,” Green said.

Of course I find the research fascinating. Not that the admixture of Neanderthal and Denisovan genes [and others] diminishes or alters the Homo Sapiens characteristics. Still, I reflect upon what colors my emotions and judgement from my Neanderthal ancestors. I have 3% directly identifiable genetic material from that stream of evolution.

mRNA technology promises to revolutionize future vaccines

More than 80 million Americans have been vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — using the game-changing possibilities of mRNA technology. And while some people worry that the technology has been “rushed,” for more than 25 years university labs have been exploring the use of RNA, rather than viruses, to build the body’s immunity against diseases…

Messenger RNA (mRNA) — the basis of the first two vaccines cleared for public use by the Food and Drug Administration — induces cells to set off an immune response against the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Vaccine researchers believe the success of these inoculations will usher in the most radical change to vaccine development since Jenner tapped a cow virus two centuries ago.

mRNA emerged as an alternative to traditional vaccine development in the early 1990s, building on research involving RNA injections into mice at the Waisman Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. mRNA is a molecule that essentially delivers instructions to cells to build specific proteins. Proteins are key to the success of a viral infection, because they enable a virus to replicate after it attaches to a cell. The coronavirus, for example, attaches to a cell with a so-called “spike” protein, which triggers the viral replication that turns the infection into COVID-19.

The theory behind the vaccines is that mRNA will tell a cell to make a protein that’s used by a certain virus, which would set off an immune response that builds the body’s ability to fend off the actual virus.

“It’s essentially biological software,”…says John Cooke, MD, PhD, medical director of the RNA Therapeutics Program at the Houston Methodist Research Institute.

Yes, it really is that simple to explain. That simplicity is part and parcel of time saved, costs lowered, for the design of production-ready vaccines.

1972 MIT study on target for potential 21st century economic collapse

This Blue Marble in the Milky Way has finite resources

According to a new peer-reviewed scientific report, industrial civilisation is likely to deplete its low-cost mineral resources within the next century, with debilitating impacts for the global economy and key infrastructures within the coming decade.

The study, the 33rd report to the Club of Rome, is authored by Prof Ugo Bardi of the University of Florence’s Earth Sciences Department, and includes contributions from a wide range of senior scientists across relevant disciplines.

Its first report in 1972, The Limits to Growth, was conducted by a scientific team at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT), and warned that limited availability of natural resources relative to rising costs would undermine continued economic growth by around the second decade of the 21st century…

Although widely ridiculed, recent scientific reviews confirm that the original report’s projections in its ‘base scenario’ remain robust. In 2008, Australia’s federal government scientific research agency CSIRO concluded that The Limits to Growth forecast of potential “global ecological and economic collapse coming up in the middle of the 21st Century” due to convergence of “peak oil, climate change, and food and water security”, is “on-track.” Actual current trends in these areas “resonate strongly with the overshoot and collapse displayed in the book’s ‘business-as-usual scenario.'”

RTFA for more depth to this confirmation. There are multiple sources, newer, more advanced methods available. Not exactly cheerful news from modern economics.

Thanks, Ray Koenig

NASA joins the hunt for aliens

In the last decade, we have devised amazing instruments to glare unflinchingly at the stars and discovered that other planets are common around them. These exoplanet discoveries have thrown gasoline on the fire of the astrobiology field, where scientists seek to explore whether life might exist beyond Earth. But they have also fueled SETI, or the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. If life does evolve on other worlds, then we may very well find more than just biosignatures like oxygen.

We might find technosignatures, too. These are things like radio signals, or even megastructures; that is, artificial objects on a gigantic scale such as hypothesized star-sized supercomputers. Now, Supercluster reported in an article this week, NASA has quietly begun to fund the search for such alien megastructures for the first time in the agency’s history…

The best news [to me] is that we’re moving well beyond the typical American cultural response to a new critical investigation of unusual phenomena. Breaking out of the historic mold of latching onto singular means of investigation – in expectation of an equally singular answer to the question, “What’s out there?”

RTFA for early days projections, the first rounds of investigative style.

Pacific Northwest heatwave virtually impossible without climate change

The last week of June saw shocking temperatures in Oregon, Washington state, and British Columbia. Differentiating a forecast in Canada from a forecast in Phoenix is usually a breeze, but not in June. All-time high-temperature records—not just daily records—were smashed across the region. Portland International Airport broke its all-time record of 41.7°C (107°F) by a whopping 5°C (9°F). The small town of Lytton set a new record high for the entire country of Canada at 49.6°C (121.3°F) on June 29. In the days that followed, most of the town burned in a wildfire…

As with other extreme weather events, the World Weather Attribution team has generated a rapid analysis of this heat wave in the context of climate change…The goal is to fit a mathematical relationship that tells you how unusual an event was—it can produce figures like 1-in-10 or 1-in-50 odds in any given year, for example. But with events this extreme, the statistics are often challenging, as this heat wave went far beyond anything in the instrumental record. As near as they could estimate, the researchers put this heat wave at a 1-in-1,000 probability—the kind of thing that ought to happen roughly once in a thousand years.

Comparing this to the world before human-caused climate change requires adding in model simulations. As usual, the team compared historical temperatures in the area to a large database of models, tossing the simulations that fit the historical trend poorly. Statistics from simulations of climate in the late 1800s can then be combined with the historical data to see how rare this event would have been in the past.

Remember, it’s taken our dumbass species two centuries to screw things up this bad. Just because quantitative events have accumulated sufficiently to produce qualitative change…the disasters we’re sliding into…doesn’t mean they were caused by short-term phenomena. Nor will there be much of a chance for short-term solutions.

Croatian village fights holey war!

It happened suddenly and without warning. Where there should have been the emerging first shoots of potato seedlings behind the orchard in Nikola Borojević’s spacious garden, there was now huge hole. Measuring 30m (98ft) wide and 15m (49ft) deep, it quickly filled with water. And it wasn’t the only one.

Within the space of a few weeks, dozens of similar holes had opened up around the village of Mečenčani and neighbouring Borojovići in north-east Croatia. The one outside Borojević’s home in Mečenčani appeared on 5 January, just six days after a 6.4 magnitude earthquake struck the area around the nearby city of Petrinja. It was the strongest earthquake to have hit Croatia for more than four decades, killing seven people and destroying thousands of homes.

While landslides and sinkholes are known to be triggered by earthquakes, along with other strange geological phenomena such as liquefactions – where the solid ground begins to behave like a liquid – the sheer number of holes appearing around the two villages surprised and baffled experts. A month after the earthquake, there were almost 100 sinkholes spread over a 10 sq km (3.8 sq miles) area, with new ones opening every week…

After analysing data collected from the area around Mečenčani and Borojovići, Croatian geologists concluded that the strange events resulted from a complex combination of several different factors…

“The situation in Croatia can be considered as warning of what can happen in countries with earthquakes and areas that are prone to cover-collapse sinkholes,” says geologist George Veni.

RTFA. Interesting details. Bother your local geologists to see if there’s something comparable in your backyard.