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Noah Berger/AP

(Noah Berger/AP)

Science

California carbon ban?

Lawmakers aim to wean the state’s electric grid off of fossil fuels

California lawmakers voted this summer for strict energy legislation that would require the state’s electricity sources to be 100 percent carbon-free within less than 30 years. The bill, passed by the State Senate and Assembly and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on Sept. 10, will bump up California’s current mandate, increasing from 50 percent to 60 percent the amount of renewable power generation required in the state by 2030. The ultimate goal: All California electricity would be produced without greenhouse gases by 2045.

Under the law, California will eventually need to get all of its electric energy from sources such as wind, solar, geothermal, and dams. Lawmakers claim they will hash out the specifics later.

Supporters hope the plan will influence the rest of the nation. “We have to show what can be done,” Assemblyman Bill Quirk, a Democrat from Hayward, said in a statement. “If we can get to 100 percent renewables, others will as well.” (So far, only Hawaii has a similar mandate.)

Opponents of the bill, though, warned the goal is unachievable and could sharply increase the cost of energy for businesses, factories, and food processors—costs they will ultimately pass on to consumers. Assemblyman Jim Patterson, a Republican from Fresno, described the bill as “a leap of faith and a gamble,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

The measure elicited the most opposition from Republican lawmakers, but some Democrats voted against it as well. Democratic Assemblyman Adam Gray accused the plan’s proponents of trying to impress progressives across the country rather than considering the poor residents of rural communities who would face higher electricity bills. “This is yet another in a laundry list of bills that are discriminatory to the people I represent,” he said.

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Nature Communications

Pregnant mice before delivery (top) and after delivery (bottom) of fetuses injected with synthetic DNA. The images demonstrate the synthetic DNA is only retained in the fetuses. (Nature Communications)

Science

A birth defect breakthrough

Researchers cure a genetic disease in unborn mice

Each year an estimated 8 million children are born worldwide with severe genetic disorders. During pregnancy, genetic disorders can impair fetal development and lead to birth defects, but currently no approved medical treatments exist to correct gene mutations before birth.

Now, in a study published on June 26 in Nature Communications, researchers from Carnegie Mellon and Yale universities used a unique gene modification method to correct gene mutations in mice early in embryonic development.

Some scientists have used the popular CRISPR-Cas9 and similar methods to attempt in utero gene modification. These techniques use enzymes to cut out DNA mutations but run the risk of cutting other, unintended areas of DNA. Such accidental edits in embryos can cause severe genetic damage that future offspring could inherit.

In the new study, the research team used a method of gene editing that does not involve cutting DNA. The technique binds synthetic DNA to mutation sites, spurring the cell’s own natural repair pathways into action to correct the error. The researchers used the technique to treat mouse embryos that carried a genetic mutation known to cause beta thalassemia, an inherited blood disorder. (Beta thalassemia impairs the body’s ability to make hemoglobin, a protein that carries oxygen to every cell in the body.)

After only a single treatment in utero, the mice were born with normal hemoglobin levels and researchers considered them cured. The animals showed no evidence of editing errors. “We looked at 50 million samples and couldn’t find one offsite error when we used our … gene editing technique,” Danith Ly, one of the researchers, said in a statement.

David Prentice, a biochemist and vice president of the pro-life Charlotte Lozier Institute, believes the research might offer a safe and accurate way to treat genetic diseases before they cause damage. “We aren’t talking about designer babies or any kind of germ-line editing where we are manufacturing embryos,” he told me. “This is an ethical way to treat these diseases and get at them even before the baby is born.”

Sweet signal

Brown plant hoppers, major insect pests on rice plants in Asia, somehow know when it’s time to grow longer wings and fly away to greener pastures. Research published in the July 17 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests the insects get their marching orders from the rice plants themselves.

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cjp/iStock

(cjp/iStock)

Science

A green farming movement

Agroecology: Sensible idea or costly green initiative?

Agroecology, a back-to-nature farming approach based on ecological science, is growing into a movement proponents hope will transform the way we grow food. “Farming the land as if nature doesn’t matter has been the model for much of the Western world’s food production system,” wrote agroecology advocates Daniel Moss and Mark Bittman in The New York Times recently. “The results haven’t been pretty: depleted soil, chemically fouled waters, … a worsening of public health and more.”

While the definition of “agroecology” varies, it can include using compost as fertilizer, attracting both pollinators and pest-consuming predators, and using nutrients from the farm as fertilizers and pesticides rather than costly chemicals. Other practices include regenerating the soil by growing complementary crops and multicropping or using local seed varieties rather than costly patented types.

But some observers caution that certain practices advocated by the agroecology movement could, if widely adopted, drive up food prices for the world’s poor.

For some in the green movement, “agroecology” means minimizing greenhouse gas emissions, according to James Wanliss, a senior fellow at the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation. “They may define this not in terms of price, yield, or mouths fed but rather in terms of some nebulous goal of saving the planet from carbon dioxide,” he said in an email.

Wanliss agrees that agricultural innovators have developed beneficial and ecologically friendly changes in recent years. He noted that no-till farming, in which farmers leave the biological layers undisturbed rather than turning the soil for each growing season, “is marvelous for the biota, excellent for erosion control and soil conservation, and is helpful in controlling some diseases.”

But the agroecology approach may only work for people who want to run a hobby farm. On a large scale, it would require greater amounts of land, produce lower yields, and increase the price of food globally. That defeats the ultimate goal of agriculture, said Jay Lehr, science director at the Heartland Institute: “Modern agriculture is about feeding the world at the lowest cost.”

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