Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees

-Revelation 7:3


lecture recording
"Issues facing mankind"
review of some fundamental points emphasizing some relevant examples
like "Biology and the citizen," current affairs, the stuff that any informed person should be conversant withThis lecture touches on Chapter 55 of Campbell et al., but goes way beyond that material


lecture recording
Here is a SLIDE showing the burning of rain forest (in Malaysia) to yield agriculture land
We (Americans) are quick to viliy 3rd world nations like Brazil since such burning:
(1) decreases biological diversity (which is considered to be good)
(2) eliminates species many of which
(a) have not been catalogued
(b) could be very useful to humankind
(c) are possibly essential in that their elimination could have far-reaching effects (which is why "ecological impact statements" are important)
(3) changes the climate, for instance we lose the area of Maine to deserts per year
Here is a SLIDE (somewhat old but still applicable) showing the "creeping deserts" problem
But it is happening here as the US 1 million acres to urban sprawl/ yr
Here is a picture I took near my home of a new subdivision being put in.
(Notice the devastation of what was otherwise deciduous forest.)
Q: What's the difference between a conservationist and a developer?
A: A conservationist has a house in the suburbs, while a developer wants one.

Depletion of soil

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remember, from plant nutrition lecture, soil is part sand, part clay (finer pulverized rock) and humus(organic matter)
this is "top soil" which can be a thin layer
For instance, here in MO (in the same subdivision as the above picture), there can be a thin layer of soil on top of limestone (shone in this hole dug for the foundation for a house)
SLIDE shows the famous dust bowl of 1937 in Oklahoma
But it can still happen SLIDE San Joquin CA 1977
Rain runoff in the midwest makes the Missouri and Mississippi rivers "too thin to plow"
"No till" agriculture might help in rain runoff of soil, but it has so far not been practical in commercial agriculture.


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Here is the dodo, the poster child of extinction.
But there were probably many extinctions before westerners came to islands.
Here is a SLIDE I took at the Smithsonian natural history museum of Martha, the last passenger pigeon who died 1 pm Sept 1, 1914 at the Cincinnatti Zoo. Passenger pigeons became extinct from hunting and then further losses even though their migrations darkened the skies hundreds of times per day according to Audubon.
SLIDE Panda eating bamboo
many species are going extinct, but publicity and public awareness emphasizes "charismatic mega-vertebrates" like the Panda.
Loss of habitats (for instance forests) is a real big problem, and bamboo forests big enough to support pandas in a populated country like China with > 1 billion people are hard to save.
SLIDE Condor, in 1986, they were reduced to 6 in the wild and 21 in captivity, they had been poisoned by farmers who thought they were predators (they are scavengers) - importance of zoos and captivity for recovery, but there is the question of when to release.
SLIDE (These are shocking!!!) Elephants in Serengetti killed for ivory by poachers
SLIDE Black rhinoceros killed for horn
We are now in a period of mass extinctionsass extinctions!!!
(but Permean extinction ==> loss of habitat, Pangaea)
(Cretacious-Tertiary==> climate change)


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Hawaiians and other native groups like native Americans) killed by smallpox and measles
1876 Japanese kudzu vine to south
Late 19th century - rabbits into Australia; biocontrol - myxomatosis virus in the 1950's and, in 1995, a field trial of rabbit calcivirus disease which then escaped into the wild.
Another Australian biocontrol experiment:
Prickly pears to Australia from S. Am. 1839, cactus moth to control it in 1926
Water hyacinth from So. Africa
Chestnut blight from China in 1895
Marine lampreys (see animal diversity lecture) kill lake trout in Great lakes
(1921 in Erie) after Welland Canal in 1829
The zebra mussel has become a poster-child of recent imported species in the US. It came in to the Great Lakes in ballast water in late 1980's. In the floods of 1993, it moved to the Mississippi River Valey. It grows so profusely it threatens to clog water intakes and displace many native species. Here is a picture of a shopping cart fished out of the water.

Reference: a recent "News Focus" series in Science (vol. 285, pp. 1834-1843, 1999, various authors)


Where is biotechnology taking us?


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Antibiotics like penicillin were major break throughs, but antibiotic resistance has developed in humans.
1928 Alexander Fleming found mold killed bacteria
later, Howard Florey and Ernst Chain developed
1945 Nobel Prize
When antibiotics are added to animal feeds, resistance developed (as for humans), so now meat and eggs have become dangerous.
Vaccines gave us strong optimism: Small pox, (1st "vaccine" [encowment]) Jenner, 1796, nearly eliminated worldwide and now the debate is whether to get rid of remaining virus stocks, the only source of the disease but also the only source of future vaccine manufacture.
Polio, Salk & Sabin, vaccines of the1950's, also nearly eliminate polio.
These successes were unique, however, viruses with no alternate hosts and which do not evolve quickly.
We have dealt poorly with rapidly " evolving " viruses with alternate hosts like flu (influenza) which has birds as an alternative host.
In US in the 1950's, hepatitis B (serum hep) was spread in giving immunizations with unclean needles by the health departments.
World Health Organization (WHO) innoculated so many people, could they have spread disease?
What a surprise to the optimists to get a new viral "Pandemic" (AIDS).
Since it was not until 1970 that retroviruses with their reverse transcriptase were discovered, we wouldn't have even understood what was going on before that and we would have been helpless.
Even with understanding, progress has been very slow.
Also, we have not come to grips with "slow" viruses ("incubation" [latent period with no symptoms but where the individual can spread infection] can be 10-20 years).
Retrovirus mechanism is so insidious (jumping into genome) -- they may have found a fatal flaw
in life as we know it.
Also, since reproduction is so fundamental, the mode of disease spread is a "clever" evolutionary strategy.
In central Africa, AIDS is a real bad problem compared with industrialized nations.
In 1992, an article in Rolling Stone suggested that a contaminated polio vaccine spread HIV in Africa in the 1950's; later (1999), Edward Hooper expanded on this theory in a book, The River.

Emerging diseases:

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And in central Africa, diseases like ebola are also found (read Richard Preston's 1994 best seller "The Hot Zone" about this deadly disease and the possibility that it spread in a primate facility in Bethesda, MD. This is a disease like in Edgar Allan Poe's "The masque of the red death.")

Summer 1999 - West Nile virus hit New York, killing 7 people, also birds, an encepalaitis caused by a flavivirus like a St. Louis encephalitis (and originally mistaken as that) - took a long time to find out, New York does not have surveillance by sentinel chickens (it took bird deaths at Bronx Zoo to involve veterinerary experts, crucial to solve) spread by mosquitos, problems from bird migrations

Gene therapy

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Jesse Gelsinger, age 18, died in Sept, 1999, of immune reaction to adenovirus engineered to treat his ornithine transcarbamylase deficiency (a genetic liver disease that leads to ammonia accumulation).
As a result, several clinical trials were halted.
Study was done at University of Pennsylvania, and there were many lapses of good protocol.
However, adenovirus is one of the main hopes for inserting correct genes into mutant tissues which are optimal for potential treatment.
(T. Beardsly Gene therapy setback, (Medicine, Business and technology) Scientific American Feb. 2000 pp. 36-37)


Lecture recording
Even as recently as 25 years ago, much of what is going on today in molecular biology might have been considered to be science fiction. The progress is awesome. Several genomes have been sequenced, and the progress is fast and furious in the human genome. Relative to a lecture series of lectures on "issues," I will limit my discussion to one point. The March 24 2000 issue of Science reports the sequence of Drosophila melanogaster. A consortium of universities headed by G. Rubin at U. Cal. Berkeley had been working for years when a corporation, Celera, came up with a faster technique (shotgun) to complete the work. Although Celera cooperated with universities and scientists, there is a danger that important genetic information might become patented, and this worry is intensified as Celera will contribute to, and possibly spearhead, the human project.


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GMO stands for "genetically modified organisms." In this country, environmental groups such as Greenpeace, have spearheaded the opposition to GMO. At the economic level, the US, a major agricultural exporter and with big biotech firms, opposes trade sanctions and labeling requirements. At the level of the world trade organization, (WTO), especially the European union (EU), there is consumer anxiety, witnessed by terms such as "Frankenfoods." Clearly, there can be wonderful achievements, such as the recent expression of beta-carotene in rice; in many third world areas, rice is so preponderant in the diet that people suffer from vitamin A deficiency. But there are dangers such as the possibility that sterility alleles will transfer from patented crop to other plants.

Here is a picture of a monarch butterfly larva, happily eating milkweed. The monarch has become the poster-child for environmental concern over corn genetically engineered to express the natural insecticide from Bacillus thruingiensis to control European corn borers. Will the pests develop resistance, as they have to every other insecticide ever used?

Reference: a recent "News Focus" series in Science "GM crops in the cross hairs" (vol. 286, pp. 1662-1668, 1999, various authors)

Here is a feature in a recent issue of the River Front Times criticizing Peter Raven, head of the Missouri Botanical Garden, for affilitiations with corporations involved in biotechnology

Medical records

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Here in the US especially, we cherish our privacy, and "invasion of privacy" ("big brother is watching you" G. Orwell, 1984) is considered to be a major threat. There are dangers and ethical concerns to non-privacy of medical information, like the possibility that an individual would be denied medical insurance if it were known that (s)he is at risk for diabetes, breast cancer (diseases where there are known genetic associations) or HIV (where life style is a known risk. Other countries, notably Iceland, Sweden and Estonia, have medical and genetic data bases. These are a treasure-trove to epidemiologists , population geneticists, and geneticists using pedigree analysis to zero in on disease related genes.

Is genome of mankind going downhill?

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Without medical intervention many of us wouldn't be here
do we carry a weak genetic constitution?
e.g. PKU used to be functionally fatal
Now even victims of (formerly) fatal genetic diseases can reproduce
Eugenics can provide an extremist viewpoint: victim dies, not reproduce
With medical intervention, frequencies of deliterious genes increase
On one hand, hard to imagine absence of medical help
But, environment change.
A sad example is that, before screening of blood banks for HIV, the large amounts of blood needed to isolate clotting factor created a new selection pressure for hemopheliacs many of whom got AIDS
Some very interesting examples, like Huntington's chorea, genes change from generation to generation -- how much of this sort of thing is going on?


Lecture recording
O3 allow life on Earth surface by blocking wavelengths below about 300 nm (280 nm is where protein would be damaged and 260 nm is where DNA would be damaged); all the ozone that protects us comes to about 3/4 cm thick.
Freon, etc. deplete
It is difficult to cut down use of freon or other ozone depleting gasses
As with global climate, debate took a long while.
Now, there is a big hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica


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Eutrophication from organic pollution
Human waste was how polio was transmitted
Strip mine runoff - acid
Irrigation opens up land to agriculture but eventually salts the ground
DDT concentrate toxins (food web)
SLIDE Damage from acid rain - Acid rain from burning fossil fuels with sulfur
Dioxin (poison contaminant of 2,4,5-T [deadly agent orange]) manufacture, now banned) problem in Love Cannal (NY) and Times Beach (MO) took decades to come to light
Toxic waste dumps all over the place.
PCB's, Heavy metals (mercury, lead, hard rock [just kidding])
Cuyahoga River feed Great Lakes caught fire in 1969!
Great Lakes fish have visible tumors
Lake Superior 483 ft ave depth, 180 yrs to turn over 1/2 of the water
Thus if improve now, still problems for generations
(like zero population growth, momentum or hysteresis in system - 2 kids/family 1980, 6.3 billion by 2070 AD)
Sewage treatment - tertiary does more than microbes
Fresh water is precious - 6 gallons out of 1 million is fresh water.
Colorado River is so impounded with dams and utilized for US irrigation that it no longer runs to the sea in Mexico

CO2 "pollution"

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Burning of fossil fuels increases atmospheric carbon dioxide, a greehouse gas, believed to contribute to global warming
so CO2 going up => greenhouse effect


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Fossil fuels - 10 to the 16 th (10 quadrillion) tons
= 10,000 x in all living organisms
(C stored since photosynthesis began)
Oil and gas may run out soon, and there was panic in 1973-4 and 1978-9
There is more oil in shale, but it is hard to extract
Coal 300 million yrs ago 10 x oil & gas in US
but high vs low sulfur (acid rain)
thermal inversions accentuate pollution in LA and Denver
SLIDE Burning of sooty coal caused industrial melanism in which black moths (better camouflaged on black trees) replaced mottled moths (better camouflaged on lichen covered trees.
Coal miners get black lung disease and get killed in accidents.
Wind and hydroelectric provide energy, but they are underutilized
Biomass can be used for energy, but sometimes in competition with feeding people or in providing humus.
Fission U235 must be pure, U238 to plutoniun - breeder reaction but can be used in weapons
wastes take 1/4 million yrs of half-life to get less radioactive
Fussion could provide virtually limitless energy, but all research so far has failed to tame a thermal hydrogen fusion reaction

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I thank Jon Wagnon for the sound recordings

this page was last updated 5/2/07