PBS Video Explains Biohacking / Synthetic Biology

This PBS Newshour video will help bring you up to speed on the subject of biohacking. If your world is mundane, or if you don’t have enough to worry about, I recommend watching it.

You see, private and university labs students are messing with biology. The term is called biohacking. The formal term for biohacking is synthetic biology. They are using labs for projects such as making batteries by using algae. Students are encouraged to follow their curiosity. One entreupeneur is working on a vegan cheese project. Some are using mushrooms to make recyclable building material. Some projects have a “benign” feeling about them, others feel more worrisome.

What started as a fringe science has now become mainstream. The curious are trying to figure out how to partner with life to make the things we need. Projects are going on in “make-shift” labs and garages. The people doing these projects believe that they are in the early stages of a revolution and like to compare what they are doing to the days of early computer designing. They believe that the natural world provides models for man that can teach us to be more productive and creative.

One project is working to make glowing plants by adding DNA from squid. This group has raised a half a million dollars online to help them continue their work. So far the light cast from the experimental plants is dim, but the team expects to make them far brighter after more manipulation.

It’s as easy as using an ink jet printer to produce biological results. Maybe someday body parts can be printed. The sky is the limit for the “bio-curious”.

Others cry caution. Unregulated biology poses large unknown dangers, according to many critics. Is the technology ahead of the sanity? Do the people doing this experimental work know or understand what they are doing and what the unintended consequences might be? Is life sacrosanct? What are the right-ethics?

Family Farm Percent and Size Statistics Across the Globe

This info graphic shows what percent of farms are family farms in the various regions of the globe. It also shows that the family farm size varies greatly in the different regions, which is related to the amount of mechanization. Note that the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations declared this year (2014) the international year of family farming.

credit: IFPRI

Reinert Interview: Artificial Photosynthesis

Today is the second post in this Monday series of subjects covered during my summer 2014 interview of Bill Reinert, recently retired energy engineer for Toyota who played a key role in the development of the Prius and then assumed the role of future transportation planning of alternative-fueled vehicles at Toyota. See his full bio here.

In my opinion, today’s portion of the interview was one of the most interesting of all, because I learned about a subject that is not at the forefront of today’s news – news which is so burdened all of the time with hyped stories about some latest promising new technology with government or other funding behind it. The possibility of producing hydrogen fuel through photosynthesis is certainly exciting. It is most helpful to have an expert energy engineer and technology futurist point us towards this subject which he views as significant in the research arena. Reinert’s description of the application for using the hydrogen which might be created through artificial photosynthesis is unique.

But, before reading today’s interview segment, we need to look at the description by Nate Lewis of “artificial photosynthesis”: …a research frontier involved with the development of an integrated system based on semiconductor nanowires that act as artificial photosynthetic pigments, which bridge a membrane and are coupled to catalysts that both reduce water to hydrogen and oxidize water to oxygen. As you can tell, this is no second grade science experiment and it relies upon the recent advances in nanotechnology.
—Kay M.

K.M.: What can you tell us about artificial photosynthesis?

Reinert: There’s a big consortium centered at CalTech under the principle investigator, Nate Lewis, to do artificial photosynthesis. This is one of the few alternative fuel areas that’s not getting a lot of federal money, but it’s getting a lot of private money, and this private money is (largely) coming from the oil companies. There’s a ton of money being thrown at it, and it looks like they’re making some progress.

It has nothing to do with producing hydrogen for fuel cell cars. It has everything to do with producing low carbon hydrogen to be used at the refinery level to reduce the carbon emissions of gasoline or diesel during the production process. Because when the hydrocrackers start up, they use tons of hydrogen. The hydrogen right now is produced by the steam methane reformation reaction which is pretty effective, but still releases a lot of carbon.

If they can actually start producing hydrogen from photosynthesis, then, they can start getting low carbon gasoline, and that’s what the whole play is all about.

So, of all the things, it seems the furthest away. Make machines act like plants, really? The fuel companies aren’t saying anything about it. Neither are they trying to be green. They’re just trying to comply with regulations and they think that this just might work.

May not be reprinted without permission.

To see last week’s interview subject of PEAK OIL click here.

Coming next week will be Reinert’s thoughts about “energy environmental sacrifice areas.”

For further information about artificial photosynthesis, I recommend:

1. http://www.osa-opn.org/home/articles/volume_24/february_2013/features/artificial_photosynthesis_saving_solar_energy_for/#.VDvtKFboY_U

2. http://spie.org/x106752.xml

3. This video:

4. http://www.timesofisrael.com/2-scientists-get-1m-worlds-biggest-alternate-fuel-prize/

White Vegetables in My White Garden

It’s been six years since we moved to Boulder from Lincoln, Nebraska. I had a white garden there, and had begun to miss it.

Because some dirt work needed to be done around a basement window this spring which had been the source of some leaking during heavy rains and the flood last fall, my husband added to the project by removing a rectangle of grass around that window well so that I could again have a white garden. The spot is very harsh here in this climate, receiving only afternoon sun.

For the new garden, I started white zinnias, shasta daisies, and phlox from seed. I also ordered some white blooming prairie plants from High Country Gardens. And, because I expected that in its first year, the garden would be sparse, I thought I’d put white vegetables on the one end. For this, I started some chives, white pumpkins, and white eggplants from seed. Needless to say, the pumpkins took over more than their share of the garden by early August but when I harvested them a couple weeks ago, I was not sorry.

Here, I must put in a plug for the source of my seeds, John Sheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds, because all of the seeds from them which I used to start this garden were true. They were white and they all turned out to be what they were supposed to be. I can’t say that for other seed starting experiences I’ve had in the past and it’s a lot of work to start seedlings and nurture them into garden plants. You don’t want to waste your time with poor seeds and who can you trust?

We’ve only had a light frost here so far, and my white garden is blooming very nicely on this mid-October date. It was well worth the effort. Yesterday, I planted white bulbs into it: crocus, daffodils, and tulips. I can hardly wait for next year and it hasn’t even frosted yet.

Here are a few photos for you.

Bee on a white coneflower.

Blanca eggplant started from seed.

Boer Ford flat pumpkins started from seed. Note black cat in background.

As you can see, we’re more than ready for Halloween at our house!

Which States Derive the Highest Percent of Gross Product from Agriculture? from Food Manufacturing?

A new study out of South Dakota crunches the numbers to tell us which U.S. states are at the top for agriculture production/food manufacturing as percent of gross state product:

1. North Dakota – 12.1 %
2. South Dakota – 11.9 %
3. Iowa 11.4 %
4. Nebraska – 11.3 %
5. Idaho – 9.0 %

The two Dakotas are the very top states for the agriculture production only category (as percent of gross state product):

1. North Dakota – 10.6 %
2. South Dakota – 10.5%

(Note that North Dakota produces over 90 percent of this nation’s canola and flax. It also produces barley, spring wheat, honey, peas, and sunflowers.)

Top states for food manufacturing only (as percent of gross state product):

1. North Carolina – 4.3 %
2. Iowa – 4.2 %
3. Kentucky – 3.7 %
4. Virginia – 3.7 %
5. Nebraska – 3.4 %

Note that the Dakotas rank lower in the food manufacturing sector because of labor costs, transportation costs, a limited workforce, and other factors.