Some Science Video Goodness: Love Some Static New Elements

Three science-themed music videos for your eyes and ears.

In advance of St. Valentine’s Day, Tim Blais has released another A Capella Science video.  Remembering how his view counts get stratospheric, he has used the music of Queen to teach us about love.

As it’s Wednesday, there’s another Science Rap Academy video out.  The kids at the Nueva School, with Tom McFadden’s guidance, have tackled static electricity.  The song uses the song “Locked Away” to make “Shocked Away.”

Finally, we have a video that is arguably not for the young ones.  It comes from Late Night With Seth Meyers and plays off the recent naming of four elements.  Science is more the source of the comedy than the intent of the video.  But that’s just my opinion, I could be wrong.

Is CRISPR Dual-Use Research Of Concern?

Today the federal government released its proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2017.  (The year is scheduled to start on October 1st, but this budget isn’t likely to be passed until close to calendar year 2017.)  But it wasn’t the only government release of note.

One item that caught my attention is in the Worldwide Threat Assessment that the U.S. Intelligence Community issued by the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper (H/T MIT Technology Review).  On page nine of the report (page 13 in the digital file) there is reference to recent meetings in the U.S. and Europe that express concern over the unregulated use of genome editing technology.  CRISPR is not named in the report, but that specific technology was the focus of at least one international meeting.

The concern expressed in the report is on the relative ease and reduced cost of being able to conduct the work.  The deliberate or unintentional misuse of this technology could pose national security risks depending on the applications.  The report lists genome editing in a section on weapons of mass destruction (WMD), which suggests that the intelligence community is concerned about this work either being weaponized or (more likely) used to develop particularly nasty biological material.

While the report notes that there are still technical hurdles in existing genome editing systems, I think the mention of genome editing as a technology worth monitoring by the intelligence community raises some new regulatory interests, at least in the U.S.

Genome editing technologies could be classified (at some point in time, if not now) as dual-use and therefore subject to additional scrutiny.  There currently exists a government policy for life sciences dual-use research of concern, but it is focused on particular biological agents and/or toxins and CRISPR or comparable genome editing technologies would only qualify if the purpose of such experiments or the agents and/or toxins already is covered by the policy.

And I think this is a challenge with genome editing.  As I understand it, the advantage of CRISPR and comparable technologies is radically improving the speed and accuracy of what is already being done.  That may change if the new genome editing technologies demonstrate the ability to do some kind of genome editing previously impossible.  We aren’t there yet, but the intelligence community thinks that time is on the horizon.

Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of February 8

Before discussing the coming week, a brief mention of the rare Sunday night appearance of a weeknight talk show.  Both CBS late night programs aired following the Super Bowl, and in the beginning of The Late Show, you can see astronaut Scott Kelly and host Stephen Colbert tossing the football.

In repeat news, you can catch Rami Malek’s recent appearance with James Corden this Friday.  Malek is the lead in Mr. Robot, a hacker series on USA Network.

In new appearances this week, Mayim Bialik is doing double duty, presumably in connection with her role as a neurobiologist on The Big Bang Theory.  Tonight (Monday) she appears with James Corden, and on Wednesday night she is on Last Call with Carson Daly.

In last week’s non-guest related science and technology content, the usual suspects appeared.  Besides the astronaut in the post-Super Bowl show, The Late Show revisited the notion of Spider-Man’s scientific possibility on Friday night.  In response to an earlier segment where Stephen Colbert bemoaned Cambridge scientists asserting that no person could climb like Spider-Man is supposed to, Stanford scientists reached out to Colbert to offer a different perspective.

That same night Neil deGrasse Tyson returned to discuss the results of his Friday Night Fights segment from January 22nd.

Over at Comedy Central, The Daily Show and The Nightly Show handled science topics on February 1st.  The Nightly Show continued its coverage of the water contamination disaster in Flint, Michigan, while The Daily Show looked at the Zika outbreak in the Americas.

Brinkman Seeks Crowdfunds For Climate Chaos Album

In advance of the off-Broadway debut of The Rap Guide to Climate Chaos, Baba Brinkman has started a crowdfunding campaign for the album of the same title.  Regular readers of the blog will know that this is old territory for Brinkman, both a show and an album tackling a scientific topic through hip-hop.

Funds contributed to the project will help pay expenses for album production aside from the vocals.  They have been in the works for a while, as demonstrated by this video Brinkman released last month.

If you can make it to New York during the run of The Rap Guide to Climate Chaos, I suggest you contribute as one of the perks available is tickets to the show at a notable discount.  I attended the Rap Guide to Evolution at the same theater back in 2011, and I can assure you that there are no bad seats.  It can be the start of a lovely evening.

The campaign runs another four weeks, so please contribute or at least spread the word.  Where else are you going to find an interpretation of a Papal encyclical from a non-theist?

Before The Zika Panic Sets In

In tonight’s Republican candidate debate, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson both said they would consider a quarantine to help contain the spread of the Zika virus in the U.S.  As of February 3, there have been 45 cases reported in the U.S., with only 9 of them locally acquired.  All of the locally acquired cases have been limited (so far) to U.S. territories.

While there have been reports about transfer of the virus through sexual activity and about the presence of the virus in both urine and saliva, mosquito bites remain the predominant means of transmission.  Those infected with the virus that develop symptoms usually suffer from a mild flu-like illness, though there have been reports of Guillain-Barre syndrome.  More concerning is a possible link to microcephaly –  a serious birth defect causing small heads and brains.  This has prompted the calls in some Latin American countries for women to avoid pregnancy.  (Restrictions on birth control and/or abortion in many of the same countries complicate this recommendation.)

It seems to me that a quarantine for the Zika seems premature, if not ill-advised.  Focusing on the virus carriers – mosquitos – makes much more sense.  The CDC guidance is for pregnant women to avoid travel to areas affected by the virus, and take strict steps to avoid mosquito bites should they travel to those areas.

More attention is necessary on both diagnostic tests and vaccines for Zika.  Vaccines are currently unavailable and diagnostic tests are limited to the CDC and some state and local health departments.  The World Health Organization has declared the recent spread of Zika a Public Health Concern, primarily due to the cluster of Guillain-Barre and microcephaly in Brazil.  Part of the advice presented on dealing with the virus is to not ban travel to Zika-affected regions, but to provide travelers with up-to-date information on the virus and means of preventing transmission.  That probably won’t stop Governor Christie from instituting a quarantine in New Jersey if he thinks it necessary.  He overstepped with his quarantine on Ebola, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he tries it again.

Public Sessions Announced For Input On Revising Biotechnology Product Regulations

In the summer of 2015 the Obama Administration announced a process to update the regulatory system for biotechnology products.  After a request for information a series of public consultation events started with an October meeting in Washington, D.C.  It marks the first major update to the process since 1992.  It is the first of three public sessions planned.

Earlier this week the dates and locations for the other two sessions were announced.  One will take place on March 9 at the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Region 6 office in Dallas, and the other will take place on March 30 at the University of California in Davis.  The specific details for how to participate will be available in the Federal Register soon, but I suspect that the process used at the October 2015 meeting will be instructive.  You will likely have the opportunity to submit comments for up to two weeks following the meeting, whether or not you can attend.

Part of the process involves how best to clarify the roles and responsibilities of the EPA, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) in the regulation of biotechnology products.  While this is a bit of an oversimplification, at present the EPA is involved with regulating these products as they relate to pesticides and applications of microbial technology.  The USDA is interested in these regulations from the perspective of impacts on plant and animal health, and the FDA is concerned with genetically engineered foods, animals and other products under its domain derived from genetically engineered sources.

Following the three meetings and the associated public comment periods, the agencies will work on an update of their common regulatory framework.  That update will also be subject to public review and comment.  The timeframes for each of these steps will eventually be published in the Federal Register, most likely by the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Video Update – New Science Rap Academy Video, Slingshot On DVD

Yesterday Tom McFadden released the latest effort from this year’s Science Rap Academy.  Titled “Wild-Type Genes” the video reworks Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams”

Slingshot, a documentary about Dean Kamen and the development of the water purification device of the same name, is now available on DVD (there are two versions also available for classroom use), through iTunes, and on the streaming service Netflix.

While there is mention on the Slingshot Facebook page of the recent debacle involving the water in Flint, Michigan, there is no word yet on whether the Slingshot is up to the challenge of handling the amount of lead contamination.  The device works on vapor compression evaporation to distill pure water.  This technique should be able to remove lead, but I can’t be sure whether or not the contamination in Flint is too much for the technology.  In at least some locations it has exceeded 150 parts per billion, which exceeds the capabilities of the filters provided to the population.