In the not-too-distant future, we won’t need sex to reproduce — Get ready!

I’ll give you the beginning of this article – and the end. You really need to read the whole critter to justify pondering the concept.

❝ For 100 million years, all our ancestors reproduced basically the same way. A male reproductive organ deposited sperm into a female reproduction organ, where it could fertilize eggs — leading to baby ancestral tetrapods, mammals, primates, and eventually humans. The past 60 years have seen this begin to change, first with clinically available artificial insemination and then with in vitro fertilization (IVF)…

❝ In the United States today, these two techniques lead to about 100,000 births each year, roughly 2.5 percent of the 4 million children born annually. Within the next few decades, that percentage will skyrocket. Developments in bioscience, galloping forward in most cases for reasons having nothing to with reproduction, will combine to make IVF cheaper and much easier.

These new techniques will allow safe and easy embryo selection – but they will also open doors to genetically edited babies, “their own” genetic babies for same-sex couples, babies with a single genetic parent, and maybe babies from artificial wombs.

❝ Starting in the next few decades, these new methods of reproduction will give people new choices. They will also raise a host of vexing legal and ethical questions, questions we need to start discussing.

Deal with genetic selection of embryos, designer babies, create 100 embryos to choose the best and scrap or recycle the rest, unibabies from a uniparent [not a clone]…you get the idea.

Henry Greely is a professor of law and of genetics. He concludes…

We need to start thinking about these questions. The future is coming. It may not be exactly the future I foresee, but, like it or not, it will certainly feature far more choices, for families and for societies, about making babies.

You now know more about that future than 99.9 percent of humanity. Learn more, pay attention to the relevant news, and talk with your family and friends. The more we consider, debate, and plan for plausible futures, the more likely we are not to create any kind of perfect future, but, at least, to avoid some catastrophes. And that is not a bad goal.

Video: Evolution of E.coli into an antibiotic resistant bacteria

❝ …At the start of the video, bacteria are dropped into the edges of the dish and soon colonise the outer safe zones. Then they hit their first antibiotic wall, which halts their progress. After a few moments, bright spots appear at this frontier and start spreading outwards. These are resistant bacteria that have picked up mutations that allow them to shrug off the drug. They advance until they hit the next antibiotic zone. Another pause, until even more resistant strains evolve and invade further into the dish. By the end of the movie, even the centre-most stripe—the zone with the highest levels of killer chemicals—is colonised.

❝ What you’re seeing in the movie is a vivid depiction of a very real problem. Disease-causing bacteria and other microbes are increasingly evolving to resist our drugs; by 2050, these impervious infections could potentially kill ten million people a year. The problem of drug-resistant infections is terrifying but also abstract; by their nature, microbes are invisible to the naked eye, and the process by which they defy our drugs is even harder to visualise.

But now you can: just watch that video again. You’re seeing evolution in action. You’re watching living things facing down new challenges, dying, competing, thriving, invading, and adapting—all in a two-minute movie…

❝ when Baym showed the videos at an evolutionary biology conference in Washington DC last month, many attendees were awed and slack-jawed. “It’s exciting, creative and, game-changing,” says Shelly Copley from the University of Colorado, one of the organisers. Baym himself, who has seen the movies hundreds of times, is still blown away by them. “You can actually see mutations happening,” he says, before shaking his head and smiling.

Seeing is believing except – I imagine – for the truly science-challenged. There may be True Believers who think some unreal force causes the same sort of result any and every time the experiment is repeated. We are looking, after all, at a demonstration of evolution.

The scarier part for me is that we’re looking at a consistent direction for bacteria. Antibiotic resistance. We have a finite amount of time remaining before pretty much all our antibiotic wonder drugs are useless.

Click the link up near the beginning to access the whole article. Fascinating chronology.

Worried about fracking chemicals in your water — wait till you get Frackibacter bacteria!

❝ Study finds a new genus of bacteria found living inside hydraulic fracturing wells – Frackibacter, one of dozens of microbes are forming sustainable ecosystems there…

The new genus is one of the 31 microbial members found living inside two separate fracturing wells, Ohio State University researchers and their colleagues report in…the journal Nature Microbiology.

❝ Even though the wells were hundreds of miles apart and drilled in different kinds of shale formations, the microbial communities inside them were nearly identical, researchers discovered.

Almost all the microbes they found had been seen elsewhere before, and many likely came from the surface ponds that energy companies draw on to fill the wells. But that’s not the case with the newly identified Candidatus Frackibacter, which may be unique to hydraulic fracturing sites, said Kelly Wrighton…

❝ Candidatus Frackibacter prospered alongside the microbes that came from the surface, forming communities in both wells which so far have lasted for nearly a year…

By sampling fluids taken from the two wells over 328 days, the researchers reconstructed the genomes of bacteria and archaea living in the shale. To the researchers’ surprise, both wells — one drilled in Utica shale and the other drilled in Marcellus shale — developed nearly identical microbial communities…

“We thought we might get some of the same types of bacteria, but the level of similarity was so high it was striking. That suggests that whatever’s happening in these ecosystems is more influenced by the fracturing than the inherent differences in the shale,” Wrighton said.

❝ Wrighton and her team are still not 100 percent sure of the microbes’ origins. Some almost undoubtedly came from the ponds that provide water to the wells, she said. But other bacteria and archaea could have been living in the rock before drilling began, Candidatus Frackibacter among them.

Soon to be a series of movies on the SYFY Channel, taking over from Sharknado. Like, um – Fracknado!

I made that up.

Oklahoma finally orders wastewater wells shut down after earthquake

Click to enlargeDavid Bitton/AP

Steve Gibson, of Pawnee, takes photos of damage

❝ Oklahoma officials have ordered 37 wastewater disposal wells shut down after a 5.6-magnitude earthquake struck the state on Saturday, equal to the strongest in the state’s history.

Governor Mary Fallin declared a state of emergency after the earthquake, which caused damage to buildings around north-central Oklahoma and could be felt as far away as Dallas and Chicago…

❝ The Oklahoma Corporation Commission ordered the shutdown of wastewater wells in a radius of about 500 square miles around the epicenter of the earthquake. “We estimate that at any one time, there are about 3,200 active disposal wells,” commission spokesman Matt Skinner said.

❝ Five months ago, US officials warned Oklahoma that the wastewater wells used for natural gas drilling were linked to an increase in earthquakes in the state, parts of which are now as likely to suffer tremors as northern California. There are about 4,200 total wells across the state and about 700 in a 15,000-square-mile “area of interest” in the area that includes the epicenter of Saturday’s temblor, near Pawnee…

❝ An increase in magnitude 3.0 or greater earthquakes in Oklahoma has been linked to underground disposal of wastewater from oil and natural gas production, and since 2013, the commission has asked wastewater-well owners to reduce disposal volumes in parts of the state where the temblors have been most frequent.

Disaster is about the only way to get the attention of the latest flavor of conservative politicians. Now that seawater is often knee-deep in coastal cities, Republican mayors begin to “recognize” that climate science really does apply to the United States. The same is beginning to happen to Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats in states dependent upon fossil fuel barons for a significant chunk of their budget.

19th Century minds are occasionally dragged into reality. Especially when it hurts.

Another magic bullet is going away — “antibacterial soaps” will disappear

If you’ve been spending your hard-earned money on fancy antibacterial soaps in the hopes that they’ll keep you clean and healthy, you may want to stop.

The US Food and Drug Administration just released a new, exhaustive report and ruling that there’s actually no good evidence they perform any better than plain old soap and water when it comes to preventing illness or the spread of bacteria and viruses.

What’s more, the agency is banning companies from using 19 common “antibacterial” chemicals — such as triclosan and triclocarban — in products going forward…Manufacturers have a year to reformulate products or remove ones with these chemicals from the market.

“Consumers may think antibacterial washes are more effective at preventing the spread of germs, but we have no scientific evidence that they are any better than plain soap and water,” said Janet Woodcock, director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a statement. “In fact, some data suggests that antibacterial ingredients may do more harm than good over the long-term…”

The FDA noted that the ban won’t apply to consumer hand “sanitizers” or wipes, as well as antibacterial products used in health care settings.

Another cash cow created by the “healthiness” industry bites the big one. But, cheer up. Some other health fad will come along. The same old profiteers and maybe a couple new entrepreneurs will “clean up” from consumers who continue to believe there’s always another magic cure ready to be discovered. For just pennies a day.

A strange thing happened in the stratosphere — and no one knows (yet) what’s going on

Republican meteorology

“The quasi-biennial oscillation is the stratosphere’s Old Faithful,” said Paul Newman, Chief Scientist for Earth Sciences at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center…“If Old Faithful stopped for a day, you’d begin to wonder about what was happening under the ground.”

❝ Winds in the tropical stratosphere, an atmospheric layer that extends from about 10 to 30 miles above Earth’s surface, circulate the planet in alternating easterly and westerly directions over roughly a two-year period. Westerly winds develop at the top of the stratosphere, and gradually descend to the bottom, about 10 miles above the surface while at the same time being replaced by a layer of easterly winds above them. In turn, the easterlies descend and are replaced by westerlies.

This pattern repeats every 28 months. In the 1960s scientists coined it the “quasi-biennial oscillation.” The record of these measurements, made by weather balloons released in the tropics at various points around the globe, dates to 1953.

The pattern never changed — until late 2015. As the year came to a close, winds from the west neared the end of their typical descent. The regular pattern held that weaker easterly winds would soon replace them. But then the westerlies appeared to move upwards and block the downward movement of the easterlies. This new pattern held for nearly half a year, and by July 2016 the old regime seemed to resume.

❝ The quasi-biennial oscillation has a wide influence on stratospheric conditions. The amount of ozone at the equator changes by 10 percent between the peaks of the easterly and westerly phases, while the oscillation also has an impact on levels of polar ozone depletion.

❝ With this disruption now documented, Newman and colleagues are currently focused on studying both its causes and potential implications. They have two hypotheses for what could have triggered it — the particularly strong El Niño in 2015-16 or the long-term trend of rising global temperatures. Newman said the scientists are conducting further research now to figure out if the event was a “black swan,” a once-in-a-generation event, or a “canary in the coal mine,” a shift with unforeseen circumstances, caused by climate change.

Of course, if it’s the latter, you can be certain the usual pimps for the fossil fuel industry will line up to deny [a] that anything really happened and [b] if it happened it’s not important.

Mapping a city’s microbes with bees

You share more than a zip code with your neighbors. You also share bugs — microscopic organisms (think bacteria, fungi, and viruses). These microbial communities are called microbiomes, and they seem to have an impact on everything from digestion to allergies. They also happen to be everywhere — from your intestines to your phone’s screen to the sidewalk beneath your feet.

But those bugs are tough to understand, because you can’t see them. “There’s like this whole other invisible planet,” says Kevin Slavin, head of the Playful Systems group at the MIT Media Lab. In a new project called Holobiont Urbanism, Slavin’s team is working to sample, sequence, and visualize the microbial makeup of New York City. Some of the team members are designers, engineers, and biologists.

Some of them are bees.

Bees typically forage no more than a mile and a half from their hives, but in their expeditions they come into contact with the microbes in their range, and those microbes stick. Slavin’s group worked with apiarists to build beehives with removable trays at the bottom that collect detritus from the bees, like a crumb-catcher in a toaster. Then they put those hives all over Brooklyn and Queens (and Sydney, Melbourne, Venice, and Tokyo).

Researchers can gather up all those bee-crumbs and sequence the DNA they find. Subtract the bee genes and what’s left represents the neighborhood microbiome. Slavin’s team mapped all those genes into a a circular evolutionary tree…but for specific urban areas. They also mapped microbes to their homes. New York City and Sydney, for example, both harbor the genera Polaromonas, Sphingopyxis, and Alicycliphilus, all of which feed on pollutants. But Venice has Meyerozyma guilliermondii and Penicillium chrysogenum, two dampness-loving fungi associated with wood rot.

What does that teach you about cities? Maybe not much. Cataloging bug DNA might not say much about the urban microbiome as a whole…just being able to see this invisible microbial world is at least a step toward understanding it…A city is about more than architecture and infrastructure and people; it’s about the bugs everyone shares, too.

Some of those little critters are harmful to us. Some aren’t. Many of them probably affect our lives in a number of ways which can’t be categorized in simple fashion. But, increasing knowledge also increases the likelihood of expanding understanding.

Earth approaches climate change – on a visual record – even if politicians see nothing

Click to enlarge

Scientists are getting better at producing visualizations that make climate change, a pretty heady topic, simple enough to take in at a glance. This image charts global temperature changes each year since 1850, using the period from 1961 to 1990 as a baseline. The color scale ranges from dark blue (-2.5 degrees C) to dark red (+2.5 degrees C).

It was created by climate scientist Ed Hawkins…

Evidence-based data and analysis is key to scientific understanding. Then there are those who care not for science or understanding. They rely on conditioned-responses from decades of earnest dedication to reality TV and pronouncements from prominent people.

Same as it ever was.

Massive amounts of carbon are locked away in permafrost — for how much longer?

Click to enlargeUniversity of Laval

Researchers have confirmed the widespread release of ancient carbon from melting Arctic permafrost in what could be the lit fuse on a climate-change bomb.

A paper published this week in Nature Geoscience has released the first measurements of greenhouse gases from permafrost under Arctic lakes. But while the study confirms those gases locked away in ice for thousands of years are seeping free, it concludes the amounts are not yet large.

Scientists have long known that permafrost contains vast quantities of carbon in dead plants and other organic material, about twice as much as the entire atmosphere. Now, that permafrost is melting more quickly as the Arctic warms up faster than anywhere else on Earth…

Researchers looked at lakes in Alaska and Siberia, as well as data from Canada. They used aerial photographs and other information to measure how the area had changed over the last 60 years.

They found that, across the Arctic, the amount of gas being released from a lake was directly related to its expansion. The more permafrost was melted around the water’s edge, the bigger the lake became, and the more greenhouse gases were released.

The team captured some of those gases and subjected them to radiocarbon dating. They found the gases had been generated from carbon stored for anywhere between 10,000 and 30,000 years…

Models suggest that over the next 90 years, greenhouse gas releases from permafrost will be 100 times higher than the levels Walter Anthony measured.

That hasn’t begun to happen, yet. No accelerated rate. No “explosion”, yet.

Devotees of philosophical and political systems embracing sophistry will welcome the news. Sit around doing nothing, whining about folks who see a need for responsible action.

Know-nothings, especially the Congressional flavor, won’t even be that concerned.

OTOH, folks who comprehend the predictive aspect of scientific research will continue the fight to mobilize political and social response to climate change.

China’s quantum satellite is designed to teleport data and create an unbreakable code

China’s quantum satellite launched from Jiuquan, August 16thReuters/China Daily

A few days ago, China launched the world’s first quantum satellite. So what exactly does this mean?

“The satellite is designed to establish ultra-secure quantum communications by transmitting uncrackable keys from space to the ground,” Xinhua, China’s state news agency, wrote after the equipment was launched on a rocket from the Gobi desert. “It could also conduct experiments on the bizarre features of quantum theories, such as entanglement.”…

Most human technology is built around the classical physics that Isaac Newton and his inheritors came up with…When engineers hit on electricity…they perceived it in aggregate as a kind of a force; it’s either on, or it’s off. This understanding led to electric switches, which became transistors, and when you put all those transistors in a box and start turning them off and on with instructions encoded “11010001101”… it’s a computer.

But as scientists were developing electric computers in the 20th century, theorists beginning with Max Planck were ripping up the rule books. Their experiments with light suggested that something about classical physics didn’t quite add up. Soon they developed mathematical proofs to explain that the tiny particles that make up matter — protons, neutrons, and electrons — don’t necessarily behave like you would expect particles to behave. They can act as if they are in two plac es at once, for instance…This is quantum theory. The first and most famous application of these ideas came in nuclear weaponry and energy.

Physicists are still trying to agree on how classical and quantum physics come together coherently. But quantum theory already underlies a lot of modern technology; the transistors on a silicon chip, in fact, wouldn’t work without it. Now engineers are trying to apply it to more futuristic things…

Scientists have done experiments with quantum teleportation already. They have instantaneously exchanged information about the quantum states of photons, which are particles of light, transmitted 143 km between two of the Canary Islands.

But testing quantum teleportation at extremely long distances requires going to space. It’s the easiest way to set up laser communication between two distant points on the earth’s surface. That’s what the Chinese satellite, developed in cooperation with the Austrian Academy of Science, intends to do.

Besides demonstrating a super-long entanglement, the scientists working with the satellite want to test new communications technology…This is where the unbreakable code comes in…

It may be easy to see in this shades of the Cold War race for technological dominance, but Spiros Michalakis at CalTech is confident that research will be shared within the scientific community. His hope is that this experiment is the first step toward a global network of research facilities sharing access to entangled particles beamed down from space—a kind of global, cloud-based quantum computer.

At the moment, though, it’s China that looks like the pacesetter.

I expect China’s scientists will share the main body of their research. It’s only human to expect the leading edge bits and pieces may be held aside as processes and experiments are worked out. Completed experiments will be published for peer review. That’s where science is moved forward – along with specialized conferences and convocations. Conservative steps tread the stairways of real science.

OTOH, do I think White House and Pentagon eggheads and Congressional know-nothings will start to panic over a “Quantum Gap”? You betcha!