‘In this October 2010 photo provided by Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, group member Jake Milarch climbs the Waterfall Tree, a famed giant sequoia that measures 155 feet in circumference at bottom, near Camp Nelson, Calif. Milarch gathered cuttings from the tree to develop clones for Archangel’s project to restore ancient forests.’

Group Seeks Forest Restoration To Cleanse Planet / March 13, 2011

Redwoods and sequoias towering majestically over California’s northern coast. Oaks up to 1,000 years old nestled in a secluded corner of Ireland. The legendary cedars of Lebanon. They are among the most iconic trees on Earth, remnants of once-vast populations decimated by logging, development, pollution and disease. A nonprofit organization called Archangel Ancient Tree Archive is rushing to collect their genetic material and replant clones in an audacious plan to restore the world’s ancient forests and put them to work cleansing the environment and absorbing carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas largely responsible for global warming. “In our infinite wisdom, we’ve destroyed 98 percent of the old growth forests that kept nature in balance for thousands of years,” said David Milarch, the group’s co-founder. “That’s what we intend to put back.”

Milarch, a tree nursery operator from the northern Michigan village of Copemish, and sons Jared and Jake have been producing genetic copies of ancient trees since the 1990s. They’ve now joined with Elk Rapids businesswoman Leslie Lee and a team of researchers to establish Archangel Archive, which has a staff of 17 and an indoor tree research and production complex. Its mission: Clone the oldest and largest individuals within the world’s most ecologically valuable tree species, and persuade people to buy and plant millions of copies — on factory grounds and college campuses; along riverbanks and city streets; in forests, farms, parks and back yards. “The number of these ancient survivors that go in the ground will be the ultimate measure of our success,” said Lee, who donated several million dollars to get the project off the ground and serves as board chairwoman. The group hopes donations and tree sales will raise enough money to keep it going. Scientific opinion varies on whether trees that survive for centuries have superior genes, like champion race horses, or simply have been in the right places at the right times to avoid fires, diseases and other misfortunes. But Archangel Archive is a true believer in the super-tree idea. The group has tracked down and cloned some of the biggest and oldest of more than 60 species and is developing inventories. The plan is eventually to produce copies of 200 varieties that are considered crucial. The trees preserve ecosystem diversity, soak up toxins from the ground and atmosphere, store carbon while emitting precious oxygen, and provide ingredients for medicines. Rebuilding forests with champion clones could “buy time for humanity” by mitigating centuries of environmental abuse, said Diana Beresford-Kroeger, an Ontario scientist who studies the roles of trees in protecting the environment.

California’s coastal redwoods and giant sequoias, the world’s largest trees, are best suited for sequestering carbon because of their size, rapid growth and durability, said Bill Libby, a retired University of California at Berkeley tree geneticist and consultant to Archangel Archive. The longer a tree lives, the longer its carbon remains bottled up instead of reaching the atmosphere. “They grow like crazy,” Libby said. “I have a clone of what used to be the world’s tallest redwood tree in my back yard. It’s still a baby, only 30 years old. It’s already taller than anything around it, probably 80 to 100 feet.” Archangel Archive crew members have taken cuttings from redwoods and sequoias between 2,000 and 3,000 years old. Among them: the Stagg tree, ranked the world’s sixth-largest sequoia by the U.S. Forest Service; and the Waterfall sequoia, considered the widest tree on Earth at ground level — 155 feet around. Three dozen coastal redwood clones and nine of the giant sequoias have taken root in the Copemish facility and another in Monterey, Calif., David Milarch said. The group also has successfully cloned sprouts from stumps of a dozen redwoods that were felled years ago, including one 35 feet in diameter.

The group uses several processes to develop clones. One is micropropagation, in which branch tips less than an inch long are planted for weeks in baby food jars containing gel-like mixtures of vitamins, fertilizers and hormones and placed on shelves under artificial lights. Eventually they are moved to pots of soil. Another method is to place tips up to 8 inches long in soil blends and grow them in mist chambers. Terry Root, a Stanford University climate change expert, said giant tree clones could help fight global warming if large numbers are planted where conditions favor their long-term survival. “You can’t put a redwood or giant sequoia just anywhere,” she said. Location is also an issue in cities. Big, shady trees could lower home energy costs in the summer but could shed limbs and cause damage to houses if planted too close. Finding genetically superior trees has been challenging, but group leaders acknowledge their biggest hurdle may be selling the public on the urgency of restoring the world’s ancient forests. David Milarch said he was aghast to learn that vast tree plantations were being cultivated in Ireland — not with native oaks, but with pine and cypress imports from California that would grow quickly and be harvested instead of helping cleanse and cool the planet as native champions would do. “It makes no sense to plant monocultures of exotic species while the last of your giant native trees are in danger of blinking off the earth,” he said.


Since planting out trees is now quite popular, why not grow yourself a Giant Redwood! You could grow from a sapling or from seed. As with most plants, the latter is best done in the Spring but I have had germination at other times of the year. There are several stories of people who are growing their own Redwoods on the Tall Tales page. Growing from seed presents a little more of a challenge and requires rather more patience, but need not be too daunting. Firstly you will need to obtain some seeds. The choice is either to buy a pack from a really good seed supplier such as Chiltern Seeds see their web site:, or to find your own.

Foraging for Seeds
You will need to find a good-sized tree. Wellingtonia have not been in the UK long enough for there to be really mature trees; most are only just into their productive stage. The cones need to be around 2″ in length or more to have a reasonable chance of having viable seeds. Ideally you should hunt both for some brown, open cones that still contain some seed and also for some that are green and unopened. This will give you the best chance of success. You are not like to find viable Dawn Redwood cones, these trees have only been grown outside of China for the last 50 or so years and are generally too small and immature. As for Coast redwood, I have not experimented with foraged seeds yet so I would be pleased to hear from anyone with experience in this area.

Sowing your Seeds
Once you are home with your cones, place the green ones to one side somewhere warm but out of direct sunlight to give them time to dry and open. This will take some weeks. In the meantime, you will need to prise out the seeds from your brown cones. At this stage many people recommend treating them in a manner called “stratification” in order to improve the germination rate. This involves placing them in cold storage, such as a household refrigerator, for a period of time from several weeks to six months or so. This process is supposed to emulate the conditions that the seeds may encounter in nature, and is thought to encourage them to release chemicals that trigger germination once they are removed for sowing in warmer compost. A mixture of seed and damp sand tied in a muslin cloth may help. There is much debate as to whether this process is effective but the dedicated among you might like to experiment. When you are ready to sow your seeds spread them on a tray of moistened compost and cover with a quarter inch or so of drier compost. Cover with a clear lid and place somewhere warm but out of direct sunlight. Do not be disheartened if you experience difficulties with your Giant Redwood seedlings. I have grown hundreds so far yet I still have many that do not germinate, and have only just got to the stage of feeling confident about keeping alive those that have germinated through the first few months of their growth! I would also add that although I have grown hundreds of Giant Redwoods from seeds I have bought, I have found it extremely difficult to germinate seeds I have gathered from trees in England. In fact I have no more than five successes with my own foraged seeds. I am not sure of the reason for this, perhaps the U.K. trees are just a little too young to have a high proportion of viable seeds. Once the initial excitement of seeing your seedlings appear has passed, if you have sown into a tray of compost you will be faced with the need to prick them out into their own pots. The easiest way of doing this is with a desert spoon, but you will probably find that many (if not all) of your seedlings die soon afterward; they do not like having their root system disturbed. Because of this I no longer sow the seeds directly into trays of compost. I now use tray inserts that have fifteen sections to a standard tray size, or I use fifteen deep square shaped pots that just about fit into the same size tray. I very nearly fill each of the sections or pots with compost, into which I have mixed ten percent or so of horticultural sand. I then moisten the compost with water treated with cheshunt compound. I tend to water it fairly well as I believe it needs to be quite damp to encourage germination (once they’ve germinated I would not keep the compost so sodden). I then place two or three seeds into each section or pot rather than one each, as I have come to accept that the germination rate is quite low. In fact for seeds that I have gathered myself, rather than purchased, I might put dozens in each pot and will be grateful if I get just one to germinate out of the whole tray! I then cover half of them with an eighth inch layer of compost, the other sections or pots I cover with fine vermiculite. My theory with the vermiculite is that it does not suffer quite so much with green surface mould. My early conclusions are that germination might be a little better with the vermiculite, but I am hedging my bets by doing half of each. I sprinkle a little moisture on the vermiculite, very lightly, but none on the compost topped seeds. I then label the tray with the date and cover with a standard transparent tray cover that has no ventilation holes (although in the hot summer I might leave a slight ventilation gap). What happens next is quite variable. I find the trays that are in the lowest part of the greenhouse often seem to germinate a little more readily but this may just be chance. I may find that several germinate within a week or so, sometimes the whole tray will eventually germinate, sometimes a few more some months later, sometimes none will come out at all!

After germination
Once they germinate I will leave them in for a week or two, possibly longer, but at some stage I will take out the pots that have germinated and put them in a shaded area of the greenhouse to grow on and to be watered from the base of the pot or section. If they are left under the cover much after the first leaves appear I have found that they are likely to die – they need some air circulation. Where I have used sectioned tray inserts, (and here is the sneaky bit), I use a sharp craft knife to cut out the sprouted sections, and thus I am able return the as-yet unsprouted sections to the covered tray. I must say I prefer the individual pots, as they are a good deal deeper and therefore easier to keep at a reasonable dampness in the hot summer months, and they can be left to grow bigger before they need to be re-potted. Giant redwood seedlings are very unforgiving of being allowed to dry out completely so it is very tempting to over-water them. I was losing many seedlings to damping-off until I got the hang of stopping myself watering them as freely as one would water a leafy pot plant in the summer. I now leave it until the pot is feels very light and if possible I apply the water sparingly to the base (with the pot standing in a small saucer), allowing it to soak up. I tend to go by the weight of the pot rather than how damp it looks or feels at the top. If you are growing Coast or Dawn Redwood over-watering is not so great a concern as they will tolerate soggy conditions more readily. The first signs of your newly emerging tree will be a tiny loop of reddish stem, a few millimetres in size, poking out of the compost. When the tiny seedling manages to straighten out, it will be about 1″ high and will often still have its seed case attached at the top. This should dry and fall off naturally within a day or so but if it looks like this is not going to happen you can very carefully remove it. The next stage you will see is the top third or so splitting open, typically into four prongs (although I have had three or five appear on some). Within a week or so your little tree will have a dozen or more tiny green branches! I have occasionally had more than one seedling grow in an individual pot or section. Although it is heartbreaking to do so, I usually feel more inclined to snip off one of them rather than try to separate them. As tempting as the later may be I have found that an attempt to obtain two prized trees usually resulted in two dead seedlings and a sad Ron! You will probably find that Coast Redwood and Dawn Redwood seeds germinate far more readily than Giant Redwood. They are also far less fussy about being over-watered. They will take water-logging fairly well, although Coast Redwood are also quite unforgiving about being allowed to dry completely. They also both grow at a much faster rate as seedlings, in my experience, so you will see your results much sooner. Remember that they can take many months to germinate, so don’t give up hope too soon.

The first winter
Generally I will keep the seedlings in my greenhouse through the first winter and until they are at least four inches tall. I avoid exposing them to direct sunlight, and my greenhouse glass is sprayed with diffuser to stop the sun burning the delicate seedlings. As I said before, it is very important not to over-water them as this is how you are most likely to lose them. Winter is not really the best time to attempt to keep Redwood seedlings alive, you might find your spring sowings fare better. This may be because any instance of over-watering will fairly quickly dry out past the danger stage for the seedling during the warm summer days. By the second summer (around a year and a half old) I will place them outside and there they will stay through all weather. By this time they will be able to withstand, and probably enjoy, mid summer sun provided that the roots are not allowed to dry out completely. A larger sized pot will help provide reserve moisture for times when you forget or are not able to water. If you were to be away from home and unable to water them then it would be wise to move them to a shaded area. Good luck!
Remaining Old Growth Forests: The shaded areas in these illustrations show the remaining old growth forests in the United States in 1620, 1850, 1926, and 1990. Each dot represents an area of 25,000 acres of old growth forest. Data are from Paullin, Charles Oscar, Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States, Edited by John K. Wright, Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, 1932, 1975; Findley, Rowe, and Blair, James Pl, “Will We Save Our Own?” National Geographic, vol. 178, no. 3, September 1990, page 120; and the Wilderness Society.

Main points to remember:
-If you are gathering seeds from trees yourself just take the larger cones, some brown, some green.
-Dry the green cones somewhere warm but out of direct sunlight.
-Use sectioned trays or individual pots; allows you to seperate out the germinated seedlings.
-Store the trays out of direct sunlight.
-Seperate out seedlings as they appear, store out of direct sunlight.
-Water sparingly.

Planting Out – Finding a Good Home
After you have nurtured your young Redwoods and re-potted them each year, they will eventually be too large to keep in a container and will need to be planted into the ground. The first problem is finding a suitable location. These are big trees and although they can grow well in a crowded area, they will not look their best. Also, they do not like shade, once again they will grow but will not produce branches in heavily shaded areas. Ideally, if you do not have a large garden yourself you could find someone who has. Failing that you could join the growing band of guerrilla gardeners and plant them out in an under-utilized public space. If you do this, then naturally you must take great care in choosing an appropriate location.

It seems unlikely that many people need instruction on digging a hole, so we shall not give any! It is possible to find many different forms of advice on digging in a tree from digging square holes (so the roots do not go round in circles) to teasing the roots out to encourage them to spread. You just have to decide what is sensible but we recommend at least loosening the soil a little around the hole and working in some compost if you have any available. In all probability it will be the environment, wildlife and how good a specimen the tree is itself that will determine its survival, rather than how nicely you dig your hole. A little luck will help too. During the first couple of years you can increase your sapling’s chances with the occasional visit with a plastic bottle of water and by clearing away any tall weeds.

Rogue Redwoods
One day when you are walking in a remote woodland and stumble across an unusual small pine tree, or perhaps you are driving along a dual carriageway and spot an unexpected young Redwood growing high up on the verge, you might well wonder if they were Redwood trees planted illicitly by a guerrilla gardener. The term “Guerrilla Gardening” originated in the U.S.A. in the 1970’s. Groups of people gather to place seeds and plants in neglected corners of public space. More recently Richard Reynolds has been doing a fine job of rallying willing troops to the cause in the U.K. See his web site for more details. Would we encourage others to plant Rogue Redwoods? Certainly, just as long as you choose an appropriate location and obviously not on privately owned land unless you have permission. Always check for the closeness of electricity pylons, telephone wires or buildings and try to choose somewhere that will provide shelter and water. Also bear in mind that you will need to avoid underground services, i.e. gas, water or sewerage pipes. Avoid slopes if possible, as large trees will find it harder to keep stable in storms. If there is a choice, somewhere fairly close to a pond or lake would help see the tree through very dry summers. These trees may be planted in a place that some authority figures deem to be “wrong” but we hope they will eventually look upon them as legacies – a gift to future generations to gaze up in awe, just as many people do with the Giant Redwoods that were planted in the Victorian era. As soon as they are big enough to be in need of protection hopefully someone will place a tree preservation order on them to hold back greedy developers.

Tulips from Amsterdam
As to those xenophobes who would argue that Redwoods are not “indigenous” please read our Native Page. We have nothing against oak or ash or any other type of tree but there is room for other species too, especially one that was re-introduced 150 years ago. Before complaining, think about the diversity that we would be missing if we do not plant specimen trees. I wonder if those who do complain for reasons of non-nativeness have ever thought about sending the tulips in their garden back to Turkey, (no, they are not originally from Amsterdam) or their potatoes back to the Andes? In terms of the local ecology, there is no danger presented by Giant Redwoods. They are not at all invasive, and in fact outside of a huge forest environment they will only reproduce with a considerable amount of assistance.

Finally, one of the greatest reasons cited for growing a tree is that it will take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. If this is one’s motivation, then what better tree to plant than one that grows to immense size. Not only taking vast amounts carbon out of the atmosphere but also holding it there for thousands of years instead of dying and returning it after a hundred or so?

Old-Growth Forests Help Combat Climate Change
Mature forests in colder climes may continue to store more carbon than they emit, thereby helping to stave off global warming
by David Biello / September 11, 2008

Rare is the forest untouched by man. Whether logging or clearing land for agriculture, the bulk of the world’s forests have fallen to crops, cattle or younger trees. According to some estimates, less than 10 percent of forests worldwide can be considered old growth, or undisturbed for more than a century. And that is not just a tragedy for the plants and animals that require mature forests—it is also a tragedy for the world’s climate, according to a study published today in Nature. Laborious research in the 1960s by the late pioneering U.S. ecologist Eugene Odum seemed to indicate that forests achieve abalance between the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) absorbed by growing trees and plants and the amount of CO2 released back into the atmosphere by the decomposition of dead plant matter. But it seems that old forests may be more efficient than previously believed. Biologist Sebastiaan Luyssaert of the University of Antwerp in Belgium and his colleagues surveyed all the existing measurements of how much carbon is absorbed and released from old-growth forests (exclusively in temperate and boreal forests due to a lack of extensive data on tropical forests). Their findings, Luyssaert says: “old-growth forests continued to accumulate carbon.” In fact, not only do old trees continue to store carbon in their wood, forest soils also appear to be actively capturing carbon over time, although direct observations of this process are lacking. All told, by Luyssaert’s calculations the relatively small remaining stands of old-growth forests in the U.S. Pacific Northwest as well as Canada and Russia consume “8 to 20 percent of the global terrestrial carbon sink,” or roughly 440.9 million tons (0.4 gigatonnes) of carbon per year.

That is not even close to enough to balance the 1.8 billion tons (1.6 gigatonnes) released into the atmosphere by deforestation or crop-clearing. But it remains important—if unrecognized—in the present battle to combat climate change. Luyssaert suggests that credit—and money—should be given to protect such old-growth forests under carbon trading schemes and other economic mechanisms to combat climate change. “Any kind of existing program that gives credit to reforestation could give credits to forest preservation,” such as the carbon offsets based on tree planting, he says. “Instead of investing the money in a new forest, it could as well be used to protect an old forest.” But the case for old forests as carbon sinks is not airtight. The measurements used by Luyssaert rely on the flux of CO2 levels over the forest, but this kind of metric can be skewed by young stands of trees within an old-growth forest or an increase in growth as a result of higher atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, according to forest ecologist Mark Harmon of Oregon State University in Corvallis, who was not involved in the study. “To really test this, one would need a far better data set that had different ages in the same system: that is very young, mature, old-growth and super old-growth in each system,” he says. But “older forests should not be written off as places to store more carbon. Even if they aren’t taking up more carbon, their harvest releases a great deal.” It remains unclear whether tropical forests, such as those of the Amazon or Congo, produce the same effect, due to much faster decomposition of dead plant matter in these climes. But preliminary results suggest they do. “The data that are available show that, like the boreal and temperate forests, tropical old-growth forests also continue to take up and sequester carbon,” says forest scientist Eugenie Euskirchen of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, who was not involved in this research. Protecting old-growth temperate and subpolar forests might prove a boon to thefight against global warming, also because of the soils they currently shade. “Many old boreal forests tend to be underlain by permafrost soils, which can contain many times more carbon than that stored in the vegetation,” Euskirchen notes. Melting those soils is an ongoing climate calamity.

Cloning Plants: Cuttings for Cloning a Plant

Cloning Plants: Cuttings for Cloning a Plant

Plants can reproduce both sexually and asexually. While sexual reproduction involves pollination and development of seeds, which in turn produces new plants, asexual reproduction is the development of a new plant from the cells of a single parent plant. Asexual reproduction does not involve pollination or seed formation, but a growing part (usually the stem) of the parent plant is used to develop a new plant by random mutation. Natural asexual reproduction is of many types. While some plants, like strawberries, develop new plants from its arching roots, which develop roots, others use the rhizomes, bulbs and tubers (like, in lilies and irises). In case of bryophyllum, an ornamental plant, new plantlets are developed throughout the margins of its leaves. These tiny plants fall off and develop as new plants. Some plants reproduce by budding whereas others reproduce by fragmentation. All these are nature’s techniques of asexual reproduction. Even humans have been using various methods of cloning plants, like developing new plants from stem cuttings. Plant tissue culture is one of the advanced techniques invented by humans for cloning plants from cuttings. {More on Plant Tissue Culture.}

What is Plant Cloning
In case of sexual reproduction, merging of two sets of DNA are involved and the resultant offspring is genetically different from the parents, wheres the offspring produced by asexual reproduction is genetically identical to the single parent. Cloning is a type of asexual reproduction which ensures that the offspring is genetically identical to the parent plant. You may wonder what is the benefit of a plant being genetically identical to its parent and how is it different from a plant developed from a seed? As the clones are taken from the strongest, healthiest and productive plants, there is a guarantee of the offspring being a genetic replica of the same characteristics. You can have a garden full of such strong and healthy plants. In case of seeds, there is no guarantee to this effect and the plants developed from the seeds of a single parent may show different characteristics. Cloning process is much faster than the natural sexual reproduction in plants. In case of grafting, a cloning technique, clones of two genetically different parents can be combined to form a new superior plant. Cloning plants for food is also beneficial, as it aids commercial farming and ensures good results. {More on grafting fruit trees.}

Cuttings for Cloning a Plant
Plant cutting is a method adopted for propagating plants through asexual reproduction. It involves using any part of the plant’s vegetation which contains at least one stem cell. Such parts are placed in a suitable medium and proper growth conditions are provided. These cuttings develop roots, stems, etc. and grow into new plants which are genetically identical to the parent plants. The term ‘plant cutting’ is often misunderstood for stem cuttings but it also includes any of the vegetative parts, like, roots, scion, eyes, leaves, leaf-bud and many other difficult cuttings. The type of cutting which is best suited for a particular plant is determined according to the plant species. Following are the different types of cuttings for cloning a plant:

  • In case of stem cuttings, a piece of stem with at least a single leaf node and a few leaves is used. This is the most popular type of plant cutting.
  • Even though the success rate is high in root cutting, it is not popular, as most people don’t want to harm the roots. In this method, a part of root is used to develop a new plant. It is better to take a healthy and thick root with a length of two to three inches, to be planted right side up in the growing medium.
  • A scion cutting is a shoot or sprout of a plant, used for vegetative propagation.
  • Eye cuttings denote pieces of plant stalk which are foliated or defoliated and are used to develop new plants by planting the cuttings in a growing medium.
  • Leaf cuttings are small parts of leaves which are used to produce new plants. Such cuttings are taken from thick leaves with veins. Take care to cut open the veins and plant it flat in the growing medium with the cut leaf exposed to light.
  • In case of leaf-bud cutting, you need that part of the plant which has a leaf blade, petiole and stem attached to it with a bud. This type of cutting is best suited for those healthy plants which have very few cloning material.

There are many other types of plant cuttings for cloning plants which are very complicated and are usually done by experts. Apart from cuttings, the most important factor for cloning plants is the proper conditions that can stimulate the growth of roots, shoots or both.

Cloning Plants from Cuttings
Now you know some of the common types of plant cuttings which are used for cloning. The following are some guidelines and tips about how to clone plants from stem cuttings:

  • You can start by selecting the right parent plant which has the desired characteristics. The plant should be healthy and at least two months old.
  • Next you have to collect the materials needed for cloning plant cuttings, like, sharp and sterile scissors for cutting the clone (i.e. plant cutting) and clipping excess leaves, a glass of fresh and tepid water, a container filler with the growing medium of your choice, rooting hormone, spray bottle with water, etc. It is very important to sterilize the tools and cutting blocks to prevent attacks of fungus, viruses and diseases in the cuttings.
  • You have to select the right rooting hormone and growing medium. Liquid rooting hormones are preferred to the powder ones as the former can easily penetrate the stem and are better for good results. You can also select from the different types of growing medium, like, rapid rooters, rock wool or oasis cubes, pro-mix, coconut fiber and many other materials. Among these, rapid rooters are very popular for being organic and are made of composted bark and latex. You must have heard of cloning plants in water and this means that the growing medium is nothing but water. It can be soil or sand too.
  • The next step is to remove the nitrogen from the parent plant by heavily watering these plants for three to four days prior to the date of cutting. The water should be pH adjusted, without any fertilizer content. This is done to minimize the amount of nitrogen stored in the plant, as it can retard the rooting process.
  • Now, you must select the plant cutting, usually a growing tip of a stem. The stem should have two to three sets of leaves and some leaf nodes. The large leaves must be cut off with scissors, leaving two to three small leaves. Now, cut the stem with scissors and the removed stem must contain at least two to three leaf nodes.
  • Place the stem on the sterile cutting block and slice it at an angle of 45°, around ¼ inch below the leaf nodes. Take care not to bruise or crush the stem while handling. The plant cutting for cloning must contain one or two leaf nodes and leaves and must be around two to four inches in length.
  • As soon as you prepare the plant cutting, dip the cut part of the stem in a good rooting hormone (for 30 to 60 seconds), to prevent the air from entering through the cut.
  • Take out the stem and wipe off the excess hormone, before planting it, at least ½ inch deep into the growing medium. Now place the container with the growing medium and cutting in a tray. Mist them with fresh water and cover with a dome. The inside of the tray should be misted with water and it must have some holes for ventilation.
  • The cuttings and the dome must be misted with water around three to four times a day. 72° and 80° Fahrenheit is the ideal temperature settings for these cuttings as too much cold or hot conditions curb root growth. For lighting, dappled sunlight is good and t5 fluorescent can be used indoors.
  • Now, you may use mild fertilizer, to be applied with water. Plain distilled water is good for the cuttings. Reduce the frequency of misting to once in every two days. The medium should not be allowed to dry out, but at the same time, excess watering should not be done.

After one week, remove the dome for about two hours, if the cutting has not wilted, and you can make sure that roots have developed to support the cutting. In case of wilting, place the dome back and continue the misting process. Don’t use the domes for those cuttings which have developed roots. The lower leaves may wilt, but don’t remove these yellow leaves as it may cause death of the plant. Once established, these plants can be removed from the growing medium and planted in soil or any other medium of your choice. {More on hydroponic soil-less gardening.}

Now, you know the basics of cloning plant cuttings. Cloning plants at home is not very difficult, once you become comfortable in this task. The above mentioned is one of the methods of cloning plants. Tissue culture is one popular practice of plant propagation, which uses various methods for cloning plants from cuttings. You can try this method and clone your favorite plant, so that you get an exact replica, which has the same desired characteristics of the parent plant.

Boy discovers microbe that eats plastic / Jun 12 2009

It’s not your average science fair when the 16-year-old winner manages to solve a global waste crisis. But such was the case at last May’s Canadian Science Fair in Waterloo, Ontario, where Daniel Burd, a high school student at Waterloo Collegiate Institute, presented his research on microorganisms that can rapidly biodegrade plastic.

NOTE: There are TWO high school students who discovered plastic-consuming microorganisms. The first was Daniel Burd. The second was Tseng I-Ching (last month), a high school student in Taiwan

Daniel had a thought it seems even the most esteemed PhDs hadn’t considered. Plastic, one of the most indestructible of manufactured materials, does in fact eventually decompose. It takes 1,000 years but decompose it does, which means there must be microorganisms out there to do the decomposing. Could those microorganisms be bred to do the job faster? That was Daniel’s question, and he put to the test with a very simple and clever process of immersing ground plastic in a yeast solution that encourages microbial growth, and then isolating the most productive organisms. The preliminary results were encouraging, so he kept at it, selecting out the most effective strains and interbreeding them. After several weeks of tweaking and optimizing temperatures Burd was achieved a 43 percent degradation of plastic in six weeks, an almost inconceivable accomplishment.

With 500 billion plastic bags manufactured each year and a Pacific Ocean Garbage Patchthat grows more expansive by the day, a low-cost and nontoxic method for degrading plastic is the stuff of environmentalists’ dreams and, I would hazard a guess, a pretty good start-up company as well.

NOTE to the comment below: Yes there are certainly methods for decomposing plastic, but most are chemical in nature not organic, requiring high temperatures and chemical additives to cause the plasticizers to vaporize, for instance this patent on PVC extraction. There have been several successful bacteria-based solutions developed at theDepartment of Biotechnology in Tottori, Japan as well as the Department of Microbiology at the National University of Ireland, but both apply only to styrene compounds.

It goes without saying that these discoveries need to be tested to ensure, for instance, that the byproducts of organic decomposition are not carcinogenic (as in the case with mammalian metabolism of styrene and benzene). The processing of plastics by these methods would also have to be contained in highly controlled environments. So, no, we’re not talking about a magic panacea or a plastic-free paradise, but the innovative application of microorganisms to break down our most troublesome waste products is nevertheless a major scientific breakthrough.

One of our readers pointed out a very interesting study in 2004 at the University of Wisconsin that isolated a fungus capable of biodegrading phenol-formaldehyde polymers previously thought to be non-biodegradable. Phenol polymers are produced at an annual rate of 2.2 million metric tons per year in the United States for many industrial and commercial applications including durable plastics.

This story has generated a flurry of feedback since it was posted on June 12. Here’s a compilation of the best and brightest comments.


High school girl discovers Styrofoam-eating bacterium / Jun 13 2009

I blogged about a Canadian student’s discovery of plastic-eating microorganisms last May. Just last month, another 16-year-old high school student (this time from Taiwan), Tseng I-Ching swept the world’s largest science fair in the Peoples Choice Category at the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair (ISEF) for her discovery of apolystyrene-decomposing bacterium derived from mealworm beetles. I-Ching vivisected more than 500 mealworm beetles to isolate the single bacterium that allows the mealworm to digest one of the most troublesome forms of waste on the planet — Styrofoam. For her discovery, I-Ching was awarded the top prize in the microbiology category along with four other prizes.

The girl, nicknamed “Frog,” says her main career objective is to become a microbiologist and “save the world.” To that end, she spent the better part of her school year skipping classes to develop her innovative project isolating the “red bacteria” with the support of two leading microbiology scholars in Taipei. Her hard work got her in trouble at school (at one point she almost stopped her research project due to pressure from her school teachers) but she carried on and is now grateful she stuck with her passion. As she says, “I love to observe and find wonder from nature. I love to solve questions. This is how I started my project.”

There have been two successful bacteria-based solutions for styrene decomposition developed at the Department of Biotechnology in Tottori, Japan, as well as the Department of Microbiology at the National University of Ireland. Both rely upon a patented soil organism called Pseudomonas putida.

Polystyrene is the bad boy of the petrochemical industry. In addition to the highly toxic chemicals required to manufacture polysterene products (namely benzene), expanded polystyrene foam requires ozone-depleting HCFC’s (CFC’s used to be used to make Styrofoam, but they have been banned for the most part). Then once disposed, it basically NEVER decomposes. It does however break apart into smaller granules, but because of its light weight, those particles quickly become both airborne and waterborne, where they wreck havoc on the ocean food chain. The U.S. disposes of about 25 billion Styrofoam cups every year and tons more extruded and expanded polystyrene packaging material. It’s a big, big problem. Biodegradable alternatives are now hitting the market, but hopefully Tseng I-Ching’s small discovery will help give to give existing Styrofoam waste a proper burial.

The World’s Largest “Landfill” is in the Middle of the Ocean
BY David Sokoll / February 23, 2009

“There is a large part of the central Pacific Ocean that no one ever visits and only a few ever pass through. Sailors avoid it like the plague for it lacks the wind they need to sail. Fisherman leave it alone because its lack of nutrients makes it an oceanic desert. This area includes the “horse latitudes,” where stock transporters in the age of sail got stuck, ran out of food and water and had to jettison their horses and other livestock. Surprisingly, this is the largest ocean realm on our planet, being about the size of Africa – over ten million square miles. A huge mountain of air, which has been heated at the equator, and then begins descending in a gentle clockwise rotation as it approaches the North Pole, creates this ocean realm. The circular winds produce circular ocean currents which spiral into a center where there is a slight down-welling. Scientists know this atmospheric phenomenon as the subtropical high, and the ocean current it creates as the north Pacific central or sub-tropical gyre.

Because of the stability of this gentle maelstrom, the largest uniform climatic feature on
earth is also an accumulator of the debris of civilization. Anything that floats, no matter
where it comes from on the north Pacific Rim or ocean, ends up here, sometimes after
drifting around the periphery for twelve years or more. Historically, this debris did not
accumulate because it was eventually broken down by microorganisms into carbon
dioxide and water. Now, however, in our battle to store goods against natural
deterioration, we have created a class of products that defeats even the most creative and
insidious bacteria. They are plastics. Plastics are now virtually everywhere in our
modern society. We drink out of them, eat off of them, sit on them, and even drive in
them. They’re durable, lightweight, cheap, and can be made into virtually anything. But
it is these useful properties of plastics, which make them so harmful when they end up in the environment. Plastics, like diamonds, are forever!

If plastic doesn’t biodegrade, what does it do? It “photo-degrades” – a process in which
it is broken down by sunlight into smaller and smaller pieces, all of which are still plastic
polymers, eventually becoming individual molecules of plastic, still too tough for
anything to digest. For the last fifty-odd years, every piece of plastic that has made it
from our shores to the Pacific Ocean, has been breaking down and accumulating in the
central Pacific gyre. Oceanographers like Curtis Ebbesmeyer, the world’s leading
flotsam expert, refer to it as the great Pacific Garbage Patch. The problem is that it is not
a patch, it’s the size of a continent, and it’s filling up with floating plastic waste. My
research has documented six pounds of plastic for every pound of plankton in this area. My latest 3-month round trip research voyage just completed in Santa Barbara this week, (our departure was covered by SBNP) got closer to the center of the Garbage Patch than before and found levels of plastic fragments that were far higher for hundreds of miles.
We spent weeks documenting the effects of what amounts to floating plastic sand of all
sizes on the creatures that inhabit this area. Our photographers captured images of
jellyfish hopelessly entangled in frayed line, and transparent filter feeding organisms with
colorful plastic fragments in their bellies.

As we drifted in the center of this system, doing underwater photography day and night,
we began to realize what was happening. A paper plate thrown overboard just stayed
with us, there was no wind or current to move it away. This is where all those things that
wash down rivers to the sea end up. On October 10, during our return trip to Santa
Barbara, we discovered something never before documented-a Langmuir Windrow of
plastic debris. Circular ocean currents with contrary rotation create long lines of
material, visible from above as streaks on the ocean. Normally these are formed by
planktonic organisms or foam, but we discovered one made of plastic. Everything from
huge hawsers to tiny fragments were formed into a miles long line. We picked up
hundreds of pounds of netting of all types bailed together in this system along with every
type and size of debris imaginable. Sometimes, windrows like this drift down over the
Hawaiian Islands. That is when Waimanalo Beach on Oahu gets coated with blue green
plastic sand, along with staggering amounts of larger debris. Farther to the northwest, at
the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve, monk seals, the most
endangered mammal species in the United States, get entangled in debris, especially
cheap plastic nets lost or discarded by the fishing industry. Ninety percent of Hawaiian
green sea turtles nest here and eat the debris, mistaking it for their natural food, as do
Laysan and Black Footed Albatross. Indeed, the stomach contents of Laysan Albatross
look like the cigarette lighter shelf at a convenience store they contain so many of them.

It’s not just entanglement and indigestion that are problems caused by plastic debris,
however. There is a darker side to pollution of the ocean by ubiquitous plastic fragments.
As these fragments float around , they accumulate the poisons we manufacture for
various purposes that are not water-soluble. It turns out that plastic polymers are sponges
for DDT, PCBs and nonylphenols -oily toxics that don’t dissolve in seawater. Plastic
pellets have been found to accumulate up to one million times the level of these poisons
that are floating in the water itself. These are not like heavy metal poisons which affect
the animal that ingests them directly. Rather, they are what might be called “second
generation “ toxics. Animals have evolved receptors for elaborate organic molecules
called hormones, which regulate brain activity and reproduction. Hormone receptors
cannot distinguish these toxics from the natural estrogenic hormone, estradiol, and when
the pollutants dock at these receptors instead of the natural hormone, they have been
shown to have a number of negative effects in everything from birds and fish to humans.
The whole issue of hormone disruption is becoming one of, if not the biggest
environmental issue of the 21st Century. Hormone disruption has been implicated in
lower sperm counts and higher ratios of females to males in both humans and animals.
Unchecked, this trend is a dead end for any species.

A trillion trillion vectors for our worst pollutants are being ingested by the most efficient natural vacuum cleaners nature ever invented, the mucus web feeding jellies and salps (chordate jellies that are the fastest growing multicellular organisms on the planet) out in the middle of the ocean. These organisms are in turn eaten by fish and then, certainly in many cases, by humans. We can grow pesticide free organic produce, but can nature still produce a pesticide free organic fish? After what I have witnessed first hand in the Pacific, I have my doubts.

I am often asked why we can’t vacuum up the particles. In fact, it would be more difficult than vacuuming up every square inch of the entire United States, it’s larger and the fragments are mixed below the surface down to at least 30 meters. Also, untold numbers of organisms would be destroyed in the process. Besides, there is no economic resource that would be directly benefited by this process. We have not yet learned how to factor the health of the environment into our economic paradigm. We need to get to work on this calculus quickly, for a stock market crash will pale by comparison to an ecological crash on an oceanic scale.

I know that when people think of the deep blue ocean, they see images of pure, clean, unpolluted water. After we sample the surface water in the central Pacific, I often dive over with a snorkel and a small aquarium net. I have yet to come back after a fifteen minute swim without plastic fragments for my collection. I can no longer see pristine images when I think of the briny deep. Neither can I imagine any “beach cleanup” type of solution. Only elimination of the source of the problem can result in an ocean nearly free from plastic, and the desired result will only be seen by citizens of the third millennium AD. The battle to change the way we produce and consume plastics has just begun, but I believe it is essential that it be fought now. The levels of plastic particulates in the Pacific have at least tripled in the last ten years and a tenfold increase in the next decade is not unreasonable. Then, sixty times more plastic than plankton will float on its surface.”

Plastic-munching bugs turn waste bottles into cash
BY Colin Barras / 19 September 2008

Newly discovered bacterial alchemists could help save billions of plastic bottles from landfill. The Pseudomonas strains can convert the low-grade PET plastic used in drinks bottles into a more valuable and biodegradable plastic called PHA. PHA is already used in medical applications, from artery-supporting tubes called stents to wound dressings. The plastic can be processed to have a range of physical properties. However, one of the barriers to PHA reaching wider use is the absence of a way to make it in large quantities. The new bacteria-driven process – termed upcycling – could address that, and make recycling PET bottles more economically attractive.

PET bugs
Although billions of plastic bottles are made each year, few are ultimately recycled. Just 23.5% of US bottles were recycled in 2006. This is because the recycling process simply converts the low value PET bottles into more PET, says Kevin O’Connor at University College Dublin, Ireland. “We wanted to see if we could turn the plastic into something of higher value in an environmentally friendly way,” he says. O’Connor and colleagues knew that heating PET in the absence of oxygen – a process called pyrolysis – breaks it down into terephthalic acid (TA) and a small amount of oil and gas. They also knew that some bacteria can grow and thrive on TA, and that other bacteria produce a high-value plastic PHA when stressed. So they wondered whether any bacteria could both feed on TA and convert it into PHA.

Bacteria hunt
“It was a long shot to be honest,” says O’Connor. His team studied cultures from around the world known to grow on TA, but none produced PHA. So they decided to look for undiscovered strains, in environments that naturally contain TA. Analysing soil bacteria from a PET bottle processing plant, which are likely to be exposed to small quantities of TA, yielded 32 colonies that could survive in the lab using TA as their only energy source. After 48 hours they screened each culture for PHA. Three cultures, all similar to known strains of Pseudomonas, accumulated detectable quantities of the valuable plastic. The next step is to improve the efficiency of the process, says O’Connor. “A quarter to a third of each cell is filled with plastic – we want to increase that to 50 to 60%.”

Less landfill
Sudesh Kumar, a microbiologist at the University of Science, Malaysia, in Penang, is impressed with the study. “There are many other systems that are economically more viable to produce PHA with better material properties,” he says. “But Kevin’s work offers an interesting novel approach to solve the problem of PET accumulation in landfill dumps.” But it is still unlikely that using the new approach alone will appeal to industry, O’Connor says. “Working with this kind of environmental technology in isolation, the chances of success are reduced,” he says. The best approach, he continues, would be to use the new bacteria as just one part of a bio-refinery capable of upcycling an array of waste products in an environmentally friendly way. {Journal reference: Environmental Science and Technology (DOI: 10.1021/es801010e)}

Kevin O’Connor
email : kevin.oconnor [at] ucd [dot] ie



By Brandon Keim  /  May 23, 2008

“The Waterloo, Ontario high school junior figured that something must make plastic degrade, even if it does take millennia, and that something was probably bacteria. (Hey, at between one-half and 90 percent of Earth’s biomass, bacteria’s a pretty safe bet for any biological mystery.)

The Record reports that Burd mixed landfill dirt with yeast and tap water, then added ground plastic and let it stew. The plastic indeed decomposed more quickly than it would in nature; after experimenting with different temperatures and configurations, Burd isolated the microbial munchers. One came from the bacterial genus Pseudomonas, and the other from the genus Sphingomonas.

Burd says this should be easy on an industrial scale: all that’s needed is a fermenter, a growth medium and plastic, and the bacteria themselves provide most of the energy by producing heat as they eat. The only waste is water and a bit of carbon dioxide. Amazing stuff. I’ll try to get an interview with this young man who may have managed to solve one of the most intractable environmental dilemmas of our time. And I can’t help but wonder whether his high school already had its prom. If he doesn’t get to be king, there’s no justice in this world.”


“My name is Daniel Burd, a grade 11 student at Waterloo Collegiate Institute. I performed my first “science” experiment involving planting and observing growth of different types of tomato seeds on the balcony of our apartment in Waterloo eleven years ago. Since that time, the ideas and concepts behind the way things work have constantly aroused my interest and have posed numerous questions for me to consider. At school, I am on ABCD Student Council, Charity Controller, Environment club, a peer tutor, and Norse Star newspaper. When I was five years old, I started to play the piano and I have completed my grade 8 piano and grade 2 rudiments at the RCM. Currently, I am learning improvisation and jazz. My jazz music role model is Oscar Peterson. I am a member of Nordic Skiing club, ROW swimming club and Waterloo Tennis Club where I am training for tournaments. I am a volunteer at K-W Science and Technology Children’s Museum. I help organize heritage events in K-W area and I run a charity dog-walking business in my neighborhood for people with disabilities. I fluently speak English, French and Russian and I enjoy spending free time with my friends.”

–  The Manning Innovation Achievement Award – $500.00
–  Dalhousie University Faculty of Science Entrance Scholarship
Senior Gold Medallist – $4000 Entrance Scholarship
–  NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Award
Senior Gold Medallist – $5 625.00
–  UBC Science (Vancouver) Entrance Award
Senior Gold Medallist – $4000 Entrance Scholarship
–  University of Ottawa Entrance Scholarship
Senior Gold Medallist – $20,000 Entrance Scholarship
($5,000 each year for 4
–  Senior Silver Medallist – $3000 Entrance Scholarship
–  The University of Western Ontario Scholarship
Gold Medallist – $2000 Entrance Scholarship
–  The University of Western Ontario Scholarship
Silver Medallist – $1500 Entrance Scholarship
–  Silver Medal – Environmental Innovation – $700.00
–  Gold Medal – Biotechnology & Pharmaceutical Sciences – $1 500.00
–  EnCana Platinum Award – Best Senior Project – $5 000.00
–  EnCana Best in Fair Award – $10 000.00

Total  $57 825.00

WCI student isolates microbe that lunches on plastic bags
BY Karen Kawawada

Getting ordinary plastic bags to rot away like banana peels would be an environmental dream come true. After all, we produce 500 billion a year worldwide and they take up to 1,000 years to decompose. They take up space in landfills, litter our streets and parks, pollute the oceans and kill the animals that eat them. Now a Waterloo teenager has found a way to make plastic bags degrade faster — in three months, he figures.

Daniel Burd’s project won the top prize at the Canada-Wide Science Fair in Ottawa. He came back with a long list of awards, including a $10,000 prize, a $20,000 scholarship, and recognition that he has found a practical way to help the environment. Daniel, a 16-year-old Grade 11 student at Waterloo Collegiate Institute, got the idea for his project from everyday life. “Almost every week I have to do chores and when I open the closet door, I have this avalanche of plastic bags falling on top of me,” he said. “One day, I got tired of it and I wanted to know what other people are doing with these plastic bags.” The answer: not much. So he decided to do something himself. He knew plastic does eventually degrade, and figured microorganisms must be behind it. His goal was to isolate the microorganisms that can break down plastic — not an easy task because they don’t exist in high numbers in nature.

First, he ground plastic bags into a powder. Next, he used ordinary household chemicals, yeast and tap water to create a solution that would encourage microbe growth. To that, he added the plastic powder and dirt. Then the solution sat in a shaker at 30 degrees. After three months of upping the concentration of plastic-eating microbes, Burd filtered out the remaining plastic powder and put his bacterial culture into three flasks with strips of plastic cut from grocery bags. As a control, he also added plastic to flasks containing boiled and therefore dead bacterial culture.

Six weeks later, he weighed the strips of plastic. The control strips were the same. But the ones that had been in the live bacterial culture weighed an average of 17 per cent less. That wasn’t good enough for Burd. To identify the bacteria in his culture, he let them grow on agar plates and found he had four types of microbes. He tested those on more plastic strips and found only the second was capable of significant plastic degradation.

Next, Burd tried mixing his most effective strain with the others. He found strains one and two together produced a 32 per cent weight loss in his plastic strips. His theory is strain one helps strain two reproduce. Tests to identify the strains found strain two was Sphingomonas bacteria and the helper was Pseudomonas. A researcher in Ireland has found Pseudomonas is capable of degrading polystyrene, but as far as Burd and his teacher Mark Menhennet know — and they’ve looked — Burd’s research on polyethelene plastic bags is a first. Next, Burd tested his strains’ effectiveness at different temperatures, concentrations and with the addition of sodium acetate as a ready source of carbon to help bacteria grow. At 37 degrees and optimal bacterial concentration, with a bit of sodium acetate thrown in, Burd achieved 43 per cent degradation within six weeks.

The plastic he fished out then was visibly clearer and more brittle, and Burd guesses after six more weeks, it would be gone. He hasn’t tried that yet. To see if his process would work on a larger scale, he tried it with five or six whole bags in a bucket with the bacterial culture. That worked too. Industrial application should be easy, said Burd. “All you need is a fermenter . . . your growth medium, your microbes and your plastic bags.” The inputs are cheap, maintaining the required temperature takes little energy because microbes produce heat as they work, and the only outputs are water and tiny levels of carbon dioxide — each microbe produces only 0.01 per cent of its own infinitesimal weight in carbon dioxide, said Burd. “This is a huge, huge step forward . . . We’re using nature to solve a man-made problem.”

Burd would like to take his project further and see it be used. He plans to study science at university, but in the meantime he’s busy with things such as student council, sports and music. “Dan is definitely a talented student all around and is poised to be a leading scientist in our community,” said Menhennet, who led the school’s science fair team but says he only helped Burd with paperwork.

Microbes convert ‘Styrofoam™’ into biodegradable plastic  /

“Bacteria could help transform a key component of disposable cups, plates and utensils into a useful eco-friendly plastic, significantly reducing the environmental impact of this ubiquitous, but difficult-to- recycle waste stream, according to a study scheduled to appear in the April 1 issue of the American Chemical Society journal, Environmental Science & Technology.

The microbes, a special strain of the soil bacterium Pseudomonas putida, converted polystyrene foam — commonly known as Styrofoam™ — into a biodegradable plastic, according to Kevin O’Connor, Ph.D., of University College Dublin, the study’s corresponding author. The study is among the first to investigate the possibility of converting a petroleum-based plastic waste into a reusable biodegradable form.

O’Connor and his colleagues from Ireland and Germany, utilized pyrolysis, a process that transforms materials by heating them in the absence of oxygen, to convert polystyrene — the key component of many disposable products — into styrene oil. The researchers then supplied this oil to P. putida, a bacterium that can feed on styrene, which converted the oil into a biodegradable plastic known as PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoates). The process might also be used to convert other types of discarded plastics into PHA, according to O’Connor.

PHA has numerous uses in medicine and can be used to make plastic kitchenware, packaging film and other disposable items. The biodegradable plastic is resistant to hot liquids, greases and oils, and can have a long shelf life. But unlike polystyrene, it readily breaks down in soil, water, septic systems and backyard composts. Worldwide, more than 14 million metric tons of polystyrene are produced annually, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Most of this ends up in landfills. Although polystyrene represents less than 1 percent of solid waste generated in the United States, at least 2.3 million tons of it is dumped in U.S. landfills each year. Only 1 percent of polystyrene waste is currently recycled, the authors note.”

Anthony J. Sinskey, Sc.D.
e-mail : asinskey [at] mit [dot] edu

Oliver Peoples, Ph.D. / Founder / Chief Scientific Officer, Metabolix
e-mail : peoples [at] metabolix [dot] com




Bacteria – The Main Ingredient in Snowflakes, Scientists Say
BY Max Brenn  /  February 29th 2008

One might rethink playing with snow or walking in the rain as a new study by scientists from the Louisiana State University revealed that snow and rain might form mostly on bacteria in the clouds. Scientists have long known that the ice crystals in clouds, which become rain or snow, need to cling to some kind of particle, called ice nucleators, in order to form in temperatures above minus 40 degrees Celsius.

Microbiologist Brent Christner at Louisiana State University sampled snow from Antarctica, France, and the Yukon and found that as much as 85 percent of the nuclei were bacteria, he said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press. “Every snow and ice sample we’ve looked at, we found biological ice nucleators. Here’s a component that has been completely ignored to date,” Christner said. The most common bacteria found was Psedomonas syringae, which can cause disease in several types of plants (tomatoes, green beams and other similar plants). The bacterium was found in 20 samples of snow from around the world and subsequent research has also found it in summer rainfall in Louisiana.

Scientists have sought ways to eliminate this bacterium in time. Now they wonder whether this elimination would result in less rain or snow, or would soot and dust be the major generators of precipitation. “The question is, are they a good guy or a bad guy. And I don’t have the answer to that,” Christner said, quoted by the same source. One thing is for sure. Bacteria that infect plants may multiply on the plants’ leaves and drift into the atmosphere. These bacteria could then cause precipitation and land on another plant, where the life cycle could continue, Christner said.

Virginia K.Walker, a biologist at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada said other studies have found bacteria serving as snow nuclei, but this is the first to identify it as Pseudomonas. “It’s one of those great bacteria…you can find them anywhere. They are really interesting,” Walker said. The study, supported by a Louisiana State University research grant and by the National Science Foundation and the Earth Institute at Columbia University, was published in today’s edition of the journal Science

Brent C. Christner
email : xner [at] lsu [dot] edu

Ubiquity of Biological Ice Nucleators in Snowfall
“Despite the integral role of ice nucleators (IN) in atmospheric processes leading to precipitation, their sources and distributions have not been well established. We examined IN in snowfall from mid- and high-latitude locations and found that the most active were biological in origin. Of the IN larger than 0.2 micrometer that were active at temperatures warmer than -7°C, 69 to 100% were biological, and a substantial fraction were bacteria. Our results indicate that the biosphere is a source of highly active IN and suggest that these biological particles may affect the precipitation cycle and/or their own precipitation during atmospheric transport”

ONE BILLION PER QUART,9171,894282,00.html
Bugs in the Reactor  /  Oct. 05, 1959

Los Alamos’ Omega West is a swimming-pool-type research reactor whose fuel rods are suspended under 25 ft. of water, which acts not only as coolant and moderator but also shields its human operators from radioactivity. In the spring of 1958, physicists peering down through it saw that the water was getting cloudy. They called Chemist-Bacteriologist Eric B. Fowler of the laboratory’s radioactive-waste disposal group, who found that it was swarming with microorganisms, about i billion per quart. The bugs turned out to be rod-shaped bacteria of the genus Pseudomonas, which were feeding on resin and felt in the water purifying system.

The fierce radiation in the reactor appeared to bother the bacteria hardly at all. When the reactor was shut down but still highly radioactive, they multiplied fast. Even when it was running full blast, they held their own. Since they normally divide every 20 minutes or so, this meant that radiation was killing only about as many as managed to live and divide. Just how much radiation the Pseudomonas got is hard to estimate, because the water circulates at varying distances from the core of the reactor, but Dr. Fowler thinks they may have absorbed more than 10 million rep (roentgen equivalent physical) in an eight-hour day, which is 10,000 times the dose that is fatal to man.

Many other microorganisms must have got into Omega West’s deadly water; only the Pseudomonas survived. Perhaps the Pseudomonas have natural resistance to radiation. More likely, under the bombardment of Omega’s radiation, normal Pseudomonas underwent mutation, producing a special strain capable of surviving in this atomic blast. This ability to transform themselves quickly to cope with new conditions is a specialty of humble bacteria, whose constitutions are relatively simple. It is an ability that higher animals cannot emulate, but may have reason to envy.


The Taxonomy of Pseudomonas
The studies on the taxonomy of this complicated genus groped their way
in the dark while following the classical procedures developed for the
description and identification of the organisms involved in sanitary
bacteriology during the first decades of the twentieth century. This
situation sharply changed with the proposal to introduce as the
central criterion the similarities in the composition and sequences of
macromolecules components of the ribosomal RNA. The new methodology
clearly showed that the genus Pseudomonas, as classical defined,
consisted in fact of a conglomerate of genera that could clearly be
separated into five so-called rRNA homology groups. Moreover, the
taxonomic studies suggested an approach that might proved useful in
taxonomic studies of all other prokaryotic groups. A few decades after
the proposal of the new genus Pseudomonas by Migula in 1894, the
accumulation of species names assigned to the genus reached alarming
proportions. At the present moment, the number of species in the
current list has contracted more than ten-fold. In fact, this
approximated reduction may be even more dramatic if one considers that
the present list contains many new names, i.e., relatively few names
of the original list survived in the process. The new methodology and
the inclusion of approaches based on the studies of conservative
macromolecules other than rRNA components, constitutes an effective
prescription that helped to reduce Pseudomonas nomenclatural
hypertrophy to a manageable size.

Genome Diversity of Pseudomonas aeruginosa
The G+C rich Pseudomonas aeruginosa chromosome consists of a conserved
core and a variable accessory part. The core genomes of P. aeruginosa
strains are largely collinear, exhibit a low rate of sequence
polymorphism and contain few loci of high sequence diversity, notably
the pyoverdine locus, the flagellar regulon, pilA and the O-antigen
biosynthesis locus. Variable segments are scattered throughout the
genome of which about one third are immediately adjacent to tRNA or
tmRNA genes. The three known hot spots of genomic diversity are caused
by the integration of genomic islands of the pKLC102 / PAGI-2 family
into tRNALys or tRNAGly genes. The individual islands differ in their
repertoire of metabolic genes, but share a set of syntenic genes that
confer their horizontal spread to other clones and species.
Colonization of atypical disease habitats predisposes to deletions,
genome rearrangements and accumulation of loss-of-function mutations
in the P. aeruginosa chromosome. The P. aeruginosa population is
characterized by a few dominant clones widespread in disease and
environmental habitats. The genome is made up of clone-typical
segments in core and accessory genome and of blocks in the core genome
with unrestricted gene flow in the population.

Oligonucleotide Usage Signatures of the Pseudomonas putida KT2440
Di- to pentanucleotide usage and the list of the most abundant octa-
to tetradecanucleotides are useful measures of the bacterial genomic
signature. The Pseudomonas putida KT2440 chromosome is characterized
by strand symmetry and intra-strand parity of complementary
oligonucleotides. Each tetranucleotide occurs with similar frequency
on the two strands. Tetranucleotide usage is biased by G+C content and
physicochemical constraints such as base stacking energy, dinucleotide
propeller twist angle or trinucleotide bendability. The 105 regions
with atypical oligonucleotide composition can be differentiated by
their patterns of oligonucleotide usage into categories of
horizontally acquired gene islands, multidomain genes or ancient
regions such as genes for ribosomal proteins and RNAs. A species-
specific extragenic palindromic sequence is the most common repeat in
the genome that can be exploited for the typing of P. putida strains.
In the coding sequence of P. putida LLL is the most abundant

Genetic Tools for Pseudomonas
Genetic tools are required to take full advantage of the wealth of
information generated by genome sequencing efforts, and ensuing global
gene and protein expression analyses. Although the development of
genetic tools has generally not kept up with the sequencing pace,
substantial progress has been made in this arena. PCR- and
recombination-based strategies allowed construction of whole genome
expression and transposon insertion libraries. Similar strategies
combined with improved transformation protocols facilitate high-
throughput construction of deletion alleles and development of a broad-
host-range mini-Tn7 chromosome integration system. While to date most
of these tools and methods have been developed for and applied in P.
aeruginosa, they will most likely also be applicable to other
Pseudomonas with appropriate modifications.

Molecular Biology of Cell-Surface Polysaccharides in Pseudomonas
aeruginosa: From Gene to Protein Function
Cell-surface polysaccharides play diverse roles in the bacterial
“lifestyle”. They serve as a barrier between the cell wall and the
environment, mediate host-pathogen interactions, and form structural
components of biofilms. These polysaccharides are synthesized from
nucleotide-activated precursors and, in most cases, all the enzymes
necessary for biosynthesis, assembly and transport of the completed
polymer are encoded by genes organized in dedicated clusters within
the genome of the organism. Lipopolysaccharide is one of the most
important cell-surface polysaccharides, as it plays a key structural
role in outer membrane integrity, as well as being an important
mediator of host-pathogen interactions. The genetics for the
biosynthesis of the so-called A-band (homopolymeric) and B-band
(heteropolymeric) O antigens have been clearly defined, and a lot of
progress has been made toward understanding the biochemical pathways
of their biosynthesis. The exopolysaccharide alginate is a linear
copolymer of ß-1,4-linked D-mannuronic acid and L-guluronic acid
residues, and is responsible for the mucoid phenotype of late-stage
cystic fibrosis disease. The pel and psl loci are two recently
discovered gene clusters that also encode exopolysaccharides found to
be important for biofilm formation. Rhamnolipid is a biosurfactant
whose production is tightly regulated at the transcriptional level,
but the precise role that it plays in disease is not well understood
at present. Protein glycosylation, particularly of pilin and
flagellin, is a recent focus of research by several groups and it has
been shown to be important for adhesion and invasion during bacterial

Pseudomonas aeruginosa Virulence and Pathogenesis Issues
Regulation of gene expression can occur through cell-cell
communication or quorum sensing (QS) via the production of small
molecules called autoinducers. QS is known to control expression of a
number of virulence factors. Another form of gene regulation which
allows the bacteria to rapidly adapt to surrounding changes is through
environmental signaling. Recent studies have discovered that
anaerobiosis can significantly impact the major regulatory circuit of
QS. This important link between QS and anaerobiosis has a significant
impact on production of virulence factors of this organism.

Pseudomonas aeruginosa Biofilms: Impact of Small Colony Variants on
Chronic Persistent Infections
The achievements of medical care in industrialised societies are
markedly impaired due to chronic opportunistic infections that have
become increasingly apparent in immunocompromised patients and the
ageing population. Chronic infections remain a major challenge for the
medical profession and are of great economic relevance because
traditional antibiotic therapy is usually not sufficient to eradicate
these infections. One major reason for persistence seems to be the
capability of the bacteria to grow within biofilms that protects them
from adverse environmental factors. Pseudomonas aeruginosa is not only
an important opportunistic pathogen and causative agent of emerging
nosocomial infections but can also be considered a model organism for
the study of diverse bacterial mechanisms that contribute to bacterial
persistence. In this context the elucidation of the molecular
mechanisms responsible for the switch from planctonic growth to a
biofilm phenotype and the role of inter-bacterial communication in
persistent disease should provide new insights in P. aeruginosa
pathogenicity, contribute to a better clinical management of
chronically infected patients and should lead to the identification of
new drug targets for the development of alternative anti-infective
treatment strategies.

Antibiotic Resistance in Pseudomonas
Pseudomonas aeruginosa is a highly relevant opportunistic pathogen.
One of the most worrisome characteristics of P. aeruginosa consists in
its low antibiotic susceptibility. This low susceptibility is
attributable to a concerted action of multidrug efflux pumps with
chromosomally-encoded antibiotic resistance genes and the low
permeability of the bacterial cellular envelopes. Besides intrinsic
resistance, P. aeruginosa easily develop acquired resistance either by
mutation in chromosomally-encoded genes, either by the horizontal gene
transfer of antibiotic resistance determinants. Development of
multidrug resistance by P. aeruginosa isolates requires several
different genetic events that include acquisition of different
mutations and/or horizontal transfer of antibiotic resistance genes.
Hypermutation favours the selection of mutation-driven antibiotic
resistance in P. aeruginosa strains producing chronic infections,
whereas the clustering of several different antibiotic resistance
genes in integrons favours the concerted acquisition of antibiotic
resistance determinants. Some recent studies have shown that
phenotypic resistance associated to biofilm formation or to the
emergence of small-colony-variants may be important in the response of
P. aeruginosa populations to antibiotics treatment.

Iron uptake in Pseudomonas
Like all aerobic bacteria, pseudomonads need to take up iron via the
secretion of siderophores which complex iron (III) with high affinity.
Much progress has been made in the elucidation of siderophore-mediated
high-affinity iron uptake by Pseudomonas, especially in the case of
the opportunistic pathogen, P. aeruginosa. Fluorescent pseudomonads
produce the high-affinity peptidic siderophore pyoverdine, but also,
in many cases, a second siderophore of lesser affinity for iron. Some
of the genes for the biosynthesis and uptake of these siderophores
have been identified and the functions of the encoded proteins known.
Iron uptake via siderophores is regulated at several levels, via the
general iron-sensitive repressor Fur (Ferric Uptake Regulator), via
extracytoplasmic sigma factors/anti-sigma factors or via other
regulators. Since pseudomonads are ubiquitous microorganisms, it is
not surprising to find in their genome a large number of genes
encoding receptors for the uptake of heterologous ferrisiderophores or
heme reflecting their great adaptability to diverse iron sources.
Another exciting development is the recent evidence for a cross-talk
between the iron regulon and other regulatory networks, including the
diffusible signal molecule-mediated quorum sensing in P. aeruginosa.

‘Jellyfish Stable State’  /  June 8, 2009

“Giant jellyfish like this one are taking over parts of the world’s oceans as overfishing and other human activities open windows of opportunity for them to prosper, say researchers. Jellyfish are normally kept in check by fish, which eat small jellyfish and compete for jellyfish food such as zooplankton, researchers said. But, with overfishing, jellyfish numbers are increasing. These huge creatures can burst through fishing nets, as well as destroy local fisheries with their taste for fish eggs and larvae. Anthony Richardson of CSIRO Marine & Atmospheric Research and colleagues reported their findings in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution to coincide with World Oceans Day.

They say climate change could also cause jellyfish populations to grow. The team believes that for the first time, water conditions could lead to what they call a “jellyfish stable state,” in which jellyfish rule the oceans. The combination of overfishing and high levels of nutrients in the water has been linked to jellyfish blooms. Nitrogen and phosphorous in run-off cause red phytoplankton blooms, which create low-oxygen dead zones where jellyfish survive, but fish can’t, researchers said. “(There is) a jellyfish called Nomura, which is the biggest jellyfish in the world. It can weigh 200 kilograms (440 pounds), as big as a sumo wrestler and is 2 meters (6.5 feet) in diameter,” Richardson said. Richardson said jellyfish numbers are increasing in Southeast Asia, the Black Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and the North Sea.”

Surge in numbers of jellyfish could be due to climate change /  6th July 2011

A worker from the Israel Electric Corp. stands next to a container filled with jellyfish at Orot Rabin coal-fired power station on the Mediterranean coast near the central town of Hadera July 5, 2011.

Nuisance: A digger drops jellyfish cleared from the power station in Hadera, IsraelA digger drops jellyfish cleared from the power station in Hadera, Israel

Slimy: Jellyfish cover the floor of the power station in IsaelJellyfish cover the floor of the power station in Isael

A surge of jellyfish in Israel clogged up the Orot Rabin nuclear power station in Hadera, a day after the Torness nuclear facility in Scotland was closed in a similar incident. Hadera ran into trouble when jellyfish blocked its seawater supply, which it uses for cooling purposes, forcing officials to use diggers to remove them. In Florida, Beach Patrol spokeswoman Captain Tamara Marris reported staggering jellyfish sting statistics but stressed that no victims were seriously injured. Amid soaring temperatures in the sunshine state, Jellyfish targeted sunseekers along a 20-mile stretch from Ormond Beach to New Smyrna Beach. The influx was thought to be down to onshore winds bringing more jellyfish into contact with bathers. Beach officials identified two species as the culprits – moon and cannonball jellyfish – but say moon jellyfish are likely to be the main culprits. ‘The cannonball jellyfish is not really a stinging jellyfish,’ Marris said. ‘It’s really not a seasonal thing. They are just at the mercy of the wind and current, so they can show up any time of the year.’ Scientists say the number of jellyfish are on the rise thanks to the increasing acidity of the world’s oceans driving away the blubbery creatures’ natural predators. The warning came in a report into ocean acidification – an often overlooked side effect of burning fossil fuel. Studies have shown that higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere doesn’t just trigger climate change but can make the oceans more acidic. Since the start of the industrial revolution, acidity levels of the oceans have gone up 30 per cent, marine biologists say.

Disruption: Containers filled with jellyfish at Orot Rabin coal-fired power stationContainers filled with jellyfish at Orot Rabin coal-fired power station

The report, published in December 2010 by the UN Environment Programme, warns that the acidification of oceans makes it harder for coral reefs and shellfish to form skeletons – threatening larger creatures that depend on them for food. The decline in creatures with shells could trigger an explosion in jellyfish populations. The report, written by Dr Carol Turley of Plymouth University, said: ‘Ocean acidification has also been tentatively linked to increased jellyfish numbers and changes in fish abundance.’ Jellyfish are immune to the effects of acidification. As other species decline, jellyfish will move in to fill the ecological niche. Populations have boomed in the Mediterranean in recent years. Some marine scientists say the changing chemistry of the sea is to blame.

A worker from the Israel Electric Corp. puts on gloves as he walks in a lot covered with jellyfish at Orot Rabin coal-fired power station on the Mediterranean coast near the central town of Hadera July 5, 2011.


BY Huw Borland / November 03, 2009

Giant jellyfish have capsized a 10-tonne fishing boat after its crew tried to haul in a net full of the stinging creatures off the eastern coast of Japan. Dozens of Nomura’s jellyfish sunk the Diasan Shinsho-maru boat and sent its three-man crew into the sea, The Mainichi Daily News reported. The organisms can weigh up to 440lbs and grow up to 6ft in diameter. The three men forced into the sea, near Chosi, were rescued by another trawler. Waters around Japan have been inundated with the jellyfish this year. Experts believe weather and water conditions in the breeding grounds off the coast of China have been ideal for the species in recent months. “The arrival is inevitable,” Hiroshima University Professor Shinichi Ue told the Yomiuri newspaper. “A huge jellyfish typhoon will hit the country.”

Nomura’s jellyfish have been known to wreak havoc in Japanese waters. They destroy fishing nets, poison fish in the nets and render them unfit for sale, sting humans and even disable nuclear power stations by blocking pumps used to cool the reactors. In 2007, there were 15,500 reports of damage caused to fishing equipment by jellyfish in the region, The Daily Telegraph reported. Many fishermen have tried to keep jellyfish out of their nets by using sharp wires.


Jellyfish Are the Dark Energy of the Oceans
by Brandon Keim  /  July 29, 2009

The fluid dynamics of swimming jellyfish have provided a plausible mechanism for a once-wild notion: that marine animals, hidden from sight and ignored by geophysicists, may stir Earth’s oceans with as much force as its wind and tides. Called induced fluid drift, it involves the tendency of liquid to “stick” to a body as it moves through water — and a little bit of drift could add up quickly on a global scale. “The mere act of swimming implies that some water travels with the swimmer,” said CalTech engineer Kakani Katija, co-author of the study in Nature Wednesday. “Drift applies to all animals, to anything with a body.”

That the mere motion of animals could play a profound role in water-column commingling was once considered absurd. The sea would surely absorb the force of a flapping fin, to say nothing of a phytoplankton’s flagellae. It was a basic principle of friction, applied to water. But in recent years, this consensus has sprung some leaks. When added up, winds and tides don’t quite provide enough energy to account for the amount of water-mixing observed in the seas. In 2004, a study found that a school of fish could cause as much turbulence as a storm. Other researchers soon suggested that ocean swimmers could account for the gap. Soon after that, ocean physicists measured enormous turbulence generated by a swarm of krill, a crustacean considered too small to have meaningful mixing effects.

Missing from their equation, however, was a physical explanation for how tiny forces could avoid being swallowed by the friction of the sea. One possibility, originally proposed by Charles Darwin’s grandson, also named Charles, was that the act of swimming created pressure differentials that pulled water along with a body, an invisible suitcase to be unpacked along the way by cross-currents. “As a body moves in a fluid, a high-pressure field is created in front of the body, and a low-pressure field behind. Because fluid moves from high to low pressure, the fluid that’s adjacent to the rear of the body moves along with it,” said Katija. “You get a permanent displacement of the water.”

Katija and CalTech bioengineer John Dabiri have provided the first direct observation of this phenomenon. Using fluorescent dyes and underwater video cameras, they’ve made visible the invisible, producing videos of swimming jellyfish trailed by the water they came from. If the video seems like an infinitesimal drop in the bucket compared to winds or tides, consider that most of the ocean — excepting the top 300 feet or so — is so placid that a couple hand-held kitchen mixers could stir a cubic mile of it.

According to Katija and Dabiri, induced fluid drift should be caused by any swimming animal. Their next task is to verify that it does, and to put numbers to how much water is moved by each animal, how it mixes, how the figures vary by body shape and size and population density. Future findings could have a profound influence on climate models, which do not now account for this so-called biogenic mixing. If swimming generates tide-scale forces, then “it has an impact on global climate. This is a rather novel twist to the whole climate story,” said William Dewar, a Florida State University oceanographer. “How one would extend existing models to include a biosphere mixing input is not clear, largely because no-one has spent much time thinking about it.”

Jellyfish May Help Keep Planet Cool
BY Geoff Brumfiel  /  July 30, 2009

Jellyfish and other related creatures may be helping to reduce the effects of climate change by stirring up the oceans, according to a new study in this week’s issue of the journal Nature. The finding is the latest in a decades-old debate over whether swimming animals can contribute significantly to ocean mixing, the process by which warm water on the surface combines with the cold water far below. Mixing plays a role in global climate change because carbon dioxide in the air above oceans dissolves in the surface water. Through mixing, it can get pulled into the depths and stored there for long periods. The process is also a key regulator of the Earth’s temperature and the ocean’s nutrients. “It’s important for us to understand the dynamics of the ocean in order to really understand what’s going to happen to climate over land,” says John Dabiri, a bioengineer at California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and co-author of the paper.

Ocean Mixers
Tides and winds are known to be major players in ocean mixing, but some researchers believe that animals might also contribute. Dabiri and his graduate student Kakani Katija decided to find out by filming dozens of jellyfish as they swam in the wild. Studying the movies shows that the simple animals drag water behind them as they swim. It’s a little bit like a bicyclist in the Tour de France, says Dabiri: “When Lance Armstrong is riding down the road, he’s actually taking quite a bit of the surrounding air along with him, and the animals are doing something similar in the water.” To avoid predators, jellyfish and related animals often hide far below the ocean’s surface during the day and swim to the surface at night to feed, according to William Dewar, an oceanographer at Florida State University in Tallahassee who was not involved with the study.

Changing The Carbon Balance
If the work is correct, then it could mean that they’re ferrying cold water to the surface and warm water into the depths of the sea with each feeding cycle. In the process, they may be taking dissolved carbon dioxide with them far beneath the sea, changing the overall carbon balance in the atmosphere. But, Dewar adds, there’s a still a long way to go before scientists can say for sure that animals like jellyfish are helping to regulate the climate. Larger-scale studies need to be carried out to understand where marine animals are living and how they move. “What I think we can say at the moment is that it’s a plausible idea,” he says.

John Dabiri
email : jodabiri [at] caltech [dot] edu

Kakani Katija Young
email : kakani [at] caltech [dot] edu


Influence of animals on turbulence in the sea / by Mark Huntley, Meng Zhou
Abstract : “Analysis of data on the hydrodynamics of swimming by 100 species, ranging in body mass (M) from bacteria to blue whales, leads to a model of animal-induced turbulence in the ocean. Swimming speeds and Reynolds number (Re) are strongly correlated with body mass, both at typical cruising speeds and at escape speeds associated with predator-prey interactions. We find that animals operating at Re > 1000 typically form schools that are concentrated by many orders of magnitude above their average abundance. We calculate the rate of kinetic energy production by 11 representative species of schooling animals ranging in size from euphausiids to whales, and find it to be of the order of 10-5 W kg-1, regardless of animal size. Animal-induced turbulence is comparable in magnitude to rates of turbulent energy dissipation (E) that result from major storms. The horizontal length scale (10 to 1000 m) of energy production rate by animal schools is comparable to the observed fine-scale variability in ε. We present detailed case studies of 4 species-Atlantic bluefin tuna, Norwegian herring, northern anchovy and Antarctic krill-all of which have schooling behavior that places them within the zone of maximum seasonal stratification where their energy production rate would be 3 to 4 orders of magnitude greater than the background average rate of turbulent energy dissipation. We conclude that schooling animals are an important source of fine-scale turbulent mixing in the ocean, especially in coastal regions during summer.”

Does the marine biosphere mix the ocean?
by W.Dewar, R.Bingham, R.Iverson, D.Nowacek, L.St.Laurent, P.Wiebe
Abstract : “Ocean mixing is thought to control the climatically important oceanic overturning circulation. Here we argue the marine biosphere, by a mechanism like the bioturbation occurring in marine sediments, mixes the oceans as effectively as the winds and tides. This statement is derived ultimately from an estimated 62.7 TeraWatts of chemical power provided to the marine environment in net primary production. Various approaches argue something like 1% (.63 TeraWatts) of this power is invested in aphotic ocean mechanical energy, a rate comparable to wind and tidal inputs.”

Swarms of Small Creatures Stir the Sea
BY Charles Q. Choi  /  21 September 2006

Swarms of tiny shrimp-like crustaceans known as krill could have a big impact on ocean life, by churning the waters and bringing nutrients from the depths up to the surface. The discovery also suggest that sea life could contribute to mixing gases in the ocean. This might influence how gases such as carbon dioxide, linked to global warming, get trapped underwater. The windswept surface layers of the open seas can teem with life, but scientists could not completely explain why, since predictions suggested not enough nutrients rise up from the abyss below to account for such abundance.

The researchers, from the University of Victoria in Canada, investigated swarms of krill in Saanich Inlet, a fjord on Vancouver Island. The crustaceans migrate to the surface daily as night approaches and retreat downward as day breaks. Over the course of three dusks and two dawns, using data gathered in boat expeditions, the researchers discovered that in the roughly 10-minute bursts in which the krill migrated, they increased turbulence by up to thousands of times. “I was initially skeptical that biologically linked turbulence could be significant. I was surprised at just how large it could be,” researcher Eric Kunze, an ocean physicist, told LiveScience.

These findings suggest krill and other sea life could prove critical in bringing nourishment up from the ocean depths, which are loaded with nutrients released by surface organisms that died and sank. “The question now is how frequently and how significant any biologically linked turbulence really is,” Kunze said. The most likely animals to generate large amounts of ocean turbulence are roughly inch-sized creatures that travel together in large schools or swarms, he speculated, such as anchovies, sardines, herring or squid.

Earth’s Immortal Species Thriving in Oceans
BY Luke McKinney  /  7.23.09

The rock star mantra of “live fast, die young” works in reverse too – you can trade off enjoyment for endurance. Don’t smoke, drink or eat meat and you can extend your life by decades, though what you’re going to do with all that time is another question. Now it seems that an animal has taken this to the logical extreme, and can live forever – the only drawback being it lives forever as a small clump of jelly.

The Hydrozoan, a small predatory sea creature like a jellyfish but without all their well known exciting higher functions, can achieve the dream of millions and become a child again. When adverse environmental conditions threaten death it can collapse into a rugged blob of cells to survive. When it re-emerges, it does so as a child – literally building itself up all over again. Since this isn’t just a shell to hide in, but a complete structural restart, it seems possible that it could keep this up forever.

Since one of these adverse environmental conditions is “getting sucked into the ballast tanks of a freighter”, the hardy hitchhiker has spread all over the globe. It possesses stingers and eats things, which are definitely qualities you don’t want in something that’s unkillable and spreading worldwide, but if you’re larger than a shrimp you’re still safe. If you are currently smaller than a shrimp, get Rick Moranis to block the laser and try to be in a better comedy next time.

We aren’t in any immediate danger of knock-on effects either, as the jetsetting jellyfish-ettes seem to be integrating quite harmlessly into their new homes (though some shrimp might disagree). The rather damp phoenix-stylings of the hydrozoan have obviously made them a hot topic in genetics, but don’t expect to buy your immortality pills just yet – this is one life extension option that isn’t even remotely applicable to humans.


The world–and especially the world’s oceans–are full of strange animals, but the weirdest may be the Nomura jellyfish. It can measure up to 6 feet in diameter and weigh more than 450 pounds. Half a dozen can break fishing lines and give a Japanese fisherman a fit. About four years ago, the giant jellyfish started to gain notice when fishermen, fishing the Sea of Japan for anchovies, salmon and yellowtail, were instead catching these sea monsters in their massive fishing nets. Now the jellyfish are again gathering in the Yellow Sea off China and the Korean peninsula. It is expected to drift into the Sea of Japan in the next few months. Last time the situation got so bad, the salmon boats in northern Japan stopped going out, and it’s reported that in some places fishermen lost 80 percent of their income. The nuclear power plants along the Japan Sea coast even sucked the jellyfish into their water pumps used to cool the reactors.

[ from the archive, originally posted on spectre 4/24/07 ]
Global warming is helping jellyfish rule the sea
BY Bjorn Carey  /  March 2007
“Jellyfish will actually thrive in warmer oceans- bad news for dozens of fish species, says biologist Martin Attrill of the University of Plymouth in England. Attrill has analyzed 50 years’ worth of data from the North Sea and found that jellyfish are more prevalent in warm-water years. As seas continue to heat up, this could pose trouble for cod, salmon and other commercial fish: Jellyfish not only outcompete fish larvae for food but eat them too.”

The Truth Behind Global Jellyfish Swarms
BY Lily Whiteman, National Science Foundation   /  19 December 2008

Large swarms of jellyfish and other gelatinous animals — sometimes covering hundreds of square miles of ocean — have recently been reported in many of the world’s prime vacation and fishing destinations. In this interview with Lily Whiteman of the National Science Foundation, renowned “jellyologist” Monty Graham of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama discusses the origins and impacts of such swarms. (Note: Jellyfish and other gelatinous animals are called “jellies” here.)

Q. What types of damage have jelly swarms caused?
A. “Damage” can be seen as either economic or environmental. Recent examples of jelly swarms that have created such problems include:
* Tourism in Australia where deadly box jellies live and in the Mediterranean where stinging jellyfish closed down many beaches during the summer of 2008.
* Many important fisheries, including the Gulf of Mexico, where jellies regularly clog nets, fowl fishing gear or prey on eggs and larvae of fish.
* Aquaculture operations are often affected. One particular example was in 2007 when an extraordinarily large swarm of jellyfish virtually wiped out a salmon farm off northern Ireland.
* Seafloor diamond operations off the coast of Namibia, where jellies have clogged vacuum pipes.
* Nuclear power plants in many locations. Recently, in November 2008, a jelly swarm clogged intake pipes at the Diablo Canyon power plant in California, and thereby caused a temporary plant shut-down.

Q. How densely are jellies packed together in swarms?
A. In most cases, a dense swarm would be a few animals in one cubic meter of water. However, in extreme cases, there can be more jellies than water. Such swarms may cover a hundred miles of more of coastline at a time.

Q. Are jelly swarms natural phenomena?
A. Yes. Jellies have likely swum and swarmed in our seas for over 600 million years. When conditions are right, jelly swarms can form quickly. They appear to do this for sexual reproduction. Since males need to release gametes (sperm) into the water, they need to be very close to females. Therefore swarming behavior is just a way for them to be close to each other.

Q. Are jelly populations increasing?
A. In some locations, jelly populations are increasing. But such increases are regional in nature; we do not have evidence that there are “global” increases due to global influences, but evidence is mounting that climate change may have an effect.

Q. Are human-caused environmental problems promoting population explosions of jellies?
A. Various types of environmental problems may promote the formation of jelly swarms. These problems include pollution, the overharvesting of fish, the introduction of non-native jelly species into new habitats, the addition of artificial substrate (like fishing reefs, and various offshore platforms) in the ocean and climate change.

Q. How may climate change promote population explosions of jellies?
A. Higher water temperatures may speed jelly reproduction as well as extend the growing season for jellies; a longer reproduction season could result in more jellies. Climate change may also increase the amount of food available for jellies. Also, climate change may change ocean currents. Changed currents may transport jellies — which drift with currents — into new habitats. Because climate change appears to be a world-wide phenomenon, climate change may have worldwide impacts on jellies. But we really don’t know yet what the details regarding interactions between climate change and jelly populations.

Q. In light of the abundance of jellies, why don’t we know more about them?
A. Marine ecologists have traditionally regarded jellies as mere nuisances that interfered with studies of truly important creatures. Because of such attitudes, ecologists have traditionally gone to great lengths to avoid jellies, rather than to study them. In fact, in the past, when scientists accidentally caught jellies in their research nets, they often did horrific things to jellies — like pouring bleach over them in order to dissolve them away without destroying the hard critters that they really wanted to study. Because jellies have traditionally been understudied, we don’t have many accurate long-term records of their population sizes. Therefore, in many places, we can’t yet say for sure whether or how much jelly population sizes may be changing.

Q. Are jellies finally getting the respect they deserve?
A. Appreciation of the ecological importance of jellies has steadily grown since the 1980s, when jelly populations exploded in several ecosystems, including the Black Sea. More scientists are now studying jellies in more locations than ever before.

Q. Why are jellies particularly difficult to study?
A. Jellies are fragile and so they are often destroyed when we try to collect them in nets. Also, jellies are difficult to preserve because their bodies are destroyed by many types of preservatives. Plus, many types of jellies are too big or too small to be raised and studied in captivity.

Q. Have you ever been badly stung by jellies while researching them?
A. Yes, but not more than an uncomfortable sting. I do have colleagues that have been hospitalized while studying jellies, though.

Q. In light of the fact that jellies are difficult to study and the ocean is so complex, how can scientists identify the individual impacts of each type of environmental disturbance on jelly populations?
A. By developing computer models of marine ecosystems. One of my main activities now is to help build such models, and then manipulate various factors in these models — such as water temperature or salinity and the size of fish harvests — in order to identify their relative influences on jelly populations.

Q. If some places have too many jellies, why don’t people just eat them?
A. Some jellies are eaten by humans and have long been considered a delicacy in some Asian countries. In addition, processed jellies are sold in some Asian food stores in the U.S.

Q. As long-lived, hardy and often abundant creatures, are jellies “the cockroaches of the sea?”
A. Absolutely not! Jellies are much better than cockroaches! Jellies represent among the oldest living animals on Earth and if the past is prologue, these highly successful creatures will continue to thrive even under the changing conditions of today’s oceans. I have said before that most likely cockroaches will be long gone when the last jelly swims in a lonely sea.

Jellyfish Booms Signal Ecosystems Out of Whack
BY Jerome Cartillier   /  June 18, 2008

The dramatic proliferation of jellyfish in oceans around the world, driven by overfishing and climate change, is a sure sign of ecosystems out of kilter, warn experts. “Jellyfish are an excellent bellwether for the environment,” explains Jacqueline Goy, of the Oceanographic Institute of Paris. “The more jellyfish, the stronger the signal that something has changed.” Brainless creatures composed almost entirely of water, the primitive animals have quietly filled a vacuum created by the voracious human appetite for fish. Dislodging them will be difficult, marine biologists say. “Jellyfish have come to occupy the place of many other species,” notes Ricardo Aguilar, research director for Oceana, a international conservation organization.

Nowhere is the sting of these poorly understood invertebrates felt more sharply than the Mediterranean basin, where their exploding numbers have devastated native marine species and threaten seaside tourism. And while much about the lampshade-like creatures remains unknown, scientists are in agreement: Pelagia noctiluca — whose tentacles can paralyze prey and cause burning rashes in humans — will once again besiege Mediterranean coastal waters this summer. That, in itself, is not unusual. It is the frequency and persistence of these appearances that worry scientists.

Two centuries worth of data shows that jellyfish populations naturally swell every 12 years, remain stable four or six years, and then subside. 2008, however, will be the eighth consecutive year that medusae, as they are also known, will be present in massive numbers. The over-exploitation of ocean resources by man has helped create a near-perfect environment in which these most primitive of ocean creatures can multiply unchecked, scientists say. “When vertebrates, such as fish, disappear, then invertebrates — especially jellyfish — appear,” says Aguilar.

The collapse of fish populations boost this process in two important ways, he added. When predators such as tuna, sharks, and turtles vanish, not only do fewer jellyfish get eaten, they have less competition for food. Jellyfish feed on small fish and zooplankton that get caught up in their dangling tentacles. “Jellyfish both compete with fish for plankton food, and predate directly on fish,” explains Andrew Brierley from the University of St Andrews in Scotland. “It is hard, therefore, to see a way back for fish once jellyfish have become established, even if commercial fishing is reduced.”

Which is why Brierley and other experts were not surprised to find a huge surge in the number of jellyfish off the coast of Namibia in the Atlantic, one of the most intensely fished oceans in the world. Climate change has also been a boon to these domed gelatinous creatures in so far as warmer waters prolong their reproductive cycles. But just how many millions, or billions, of jellyfish roam the seas is nearly impossible to know, said scientists. For one things, the boneless, translucent animals — even big ones grouped in large swarms — are hard to spot in satellite images or sonar soundings, unlike schools of fish. They are also resist study in captivity, which means a relative paucity of academic studies. “There are only 20 percent of species of jellyfish for which we know the life cycle,” said Goy.

And the fact that jellyfish are not commercially exploited, with the exception of a few species eaten by gastronomes in East Asia, has also added to this benign neglect. But the measurable impact of these stinging beasts on beach-based tourism along the Mediterranean has begun to spur greater interest in these peculiar creatures whose growing presence points to dangerous changes not just in the world’s oceans, but on the ground and in the air as well.

In the Gulf of Mexico’s densest jelly swarms, there are more jellyfish than there is water. More than 100 jellies may jam each cubic meter of water. {photo : Dauphin Island Sea Lab}



(February 2003) – “The aquarium strain of Caulerpa taxifolia is an extremely invasive seaweed that is currently infesting tens of thousands of acres in the Mediterranean Sea and has now been found in two coastal water bodies in southern California. The aquarium strain of C. taxifolia was first found in the Mediterranean Sea off Monaco, adjacent to the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco, around 1984. Since then, C. taxifolia has spread along the Mediterranean coast and dramatically altered and displaced native plant and animal communities. Early eradication was not attempted in the Mediterranean, and the infestation is now considered beyond control. As of 2001, it was estimated that C. taxifolia had infested over 30,000 acres of seafloor in Spain, France, Italy, Croatia and Tunisia.

Prevention of new infestations: Aquarium water and other contents should never be emptied into or near any gutter, storm drain, creek, lagoon, bay, harbor, or the ocean. Aquarium water should be disposed of only in a sink or toilet. Rock and other solid material from an aquarium should be disposed of in a trash can. C. taxifolia from an aquarium (and anything it is attached to), should be placed in a plastic bag, put in a freezer for at least 24 hours, and then disposed of in a trash can.

“Bickering over whether the species was natural or invasive, and whether the museum had released it or not, contributed to a delay that allowed the plant to spread beyond control. The museum continued to deny releasing the plant, although former director Jacques Cousteau eventually expressed the belief that it was the only reasonable explanation. C. taxifolia has no natural predators or competitors in the Mediterranean. It crowds out other fish and plants, and contains a strong toxin that is distasteful to most species around the world. Regions that have been invaded by the plant now show that about half the expected number of fish have disappeared.”

“Over the years that we have observed this Caulerpa in the Mediterranean, we have never seen evidence of sexual reproduction,” says Meinesz. The only reproductive cells it releases are male, fostering a suspicion that all C. taxifolia in the Mediterranean are clones of a single aquarium plant.”



“Geologists view crude oil and natural gas as the product of compression and heating of ancient organic materials (i.e. kerogen) over geological time. Today’s oil formed from the preserved remains of prehistoric zooplankton and algae, which had settled to a sea or lake bottom in large quantities under anoxic conditions (the remains of prehistoric terrestrial plants, on the other hand, tended to form coal). Over geological time the organic matter mixed with mud, and was buried under heavy layers of sediment resulting in high levels of heat and pressure (known as diagenesis). This caused the organic matter to chemically change, first into a waxy material known as kerogen which is found in various oil shales around the world, and then with more heat into liquid and gaseous hydrocarbons in a process known as catagenesis.”

“Fourth generation biofuels is a term that I’ve seen presented as various different technologies so it’s hard to really define exactly what these fuels are. One definition of a fourth generation biofuel is crops that are genetically engineered to consume more CO2 from the atmosphere than they’ll produce during combustion later as a fuel. Another definition is genetically engineered crops similar to the ones just mentioned but combined with synthesized microbes that will convert the biofuels produced into even more efficient fuel. For example a plant could be grown then converted into a fuel which is then exposed to a microbe that changes it directly into gasoline. Yet another definition is genetically modified or synthesized microbes that convert CO2 in the atmosphere directly into usable fuels.

With all these different definitions of what a fourth generation biofuel is its no wonder that it can be so hard to find a solid explaination. The answer is that no one really knows what a fourth generation biofuel is yet except everyone seems to agree it involves genetic modifications. However, even though it involves genetic modifications that can’t be the sole definition. Let me recap the different biofuel generations for you. First generation biofuels are the fuels currently in use such as biodiesel. Second generation biofuels are similar fuels but produced from non-food crops. Third generation biofuels are genetically modified crops that capture more CO2 from the atmosphere resulting in a carbon neutral fuel. This third generation is why fourth generation has to be more than simply genetically modified crops. So, what is a fourth generation biofuel then? I would define a fourth generation biofuel as biofuels that result in a negative carbon impact when combusted. Since third generation biofuels result in a carbon neutral impact and many examples of a fourth generation biofuel mention more carbon being consumed than is released during use this seems like a suitable definition.”

from Green Dreams
BY Joel K. Bourne, Jr.  /  October 2007

“Pacheco traces another line on his chart, at twice the altitude of the first. It represents the ultimate biofuels dream: enough green fuel to make the U.S. energy independent. It is where we might be, says Pacheco, if we greatly increase vehicle efficiency while churning out cellulosic ethanol, or, more tantalizing, “if we make algae work.” There is no magic-bullet fuel crop that can solve our energy woes without harming the environment, says virtually every scientist studying the issue. But most say that algae—single-celled pond scum—comes closer than any other plant because it grows in wastewater, even seawater, requiring little more than sunlight and carbon dioxide to flourish. NREL had an algae program for 17 years until it was shut down in the mid-1990s for lack of funding. This year the lab is cranking it back up again. A dozen start-up companies are also trying to convert the slimy green stuff into a viable fuel.

GreenFuel Technologies, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, is at the head of the pack. Founded by MIT chemist Isaac Berzin, the company has developed a process that uses algae in plastic bags to siphon carbon dioxide from the smoke-stack emissions of power plants. Algae not only reduce a plant’s global warming gases, but also devour other pollutants. Some algae make starch, which can be processed into ethanol; others produce tiny droplets of oil that can be brewed into biodiesel or even jet fuel. Best of all, algae in the right conditions can double in mass within hours. While each acre of corn produces around 300 gallons (1,135 liters) of ethanol a year and an acre of soybeans around 60 gallons (227 liters) of biodiesel, each acre of algae theoretically can churn out more than 5,000 gallons (19,000 liters) of biofuel each year.

“Corn or soybeans, you harvest once a year,” says Berzin. “Algae you harvest every day. And we’ve proved we can grow algae from Boston to Arizona.” Berzin’s company has partnered with Arizona Public Service, the state’s largest utility, to test algae production at APS’s natural-gas-burning Redhawk power plant just west of Phoenix. Algae farms around that one plant, located on 2,000 acres (809 hectares) of bone-dry Sonoran Desert, could double the current U.S. production of biodiesel, says Berzin.

The energy farm, as GreenFuel calls it, isn’t much to look at, just a cluster of shipping containers and office trailers next to a plastic greenhouse structure longer than a football field and perhaps 50 feet (15 meters) wide. Outside the greenhouse, rows of large plastic tubes filled with bubbling bright green liquid hang like giant slugs from hooks. After making a few calls to his boss, GreenFuel’s security-conscious head of field operations, Marcus Gay, allows me to inspect this “seed farm,” which grows algae for the greenhouse. Everything else is off-limits. The company guards its secrets closely.

With good reason: Only perhaps a dozen people on the planet know how to grow algae in high-density systems, says Gay. Algae specialists, long near the bottom of the biology food chain, are becoming the rock stars. Two of Arizona’s largest universities recently started algae programs. Their biggest challenge, as with cellulosic ethanol, is reducing the cost of algae fuel. “At the end of the day for this to work, this has to be cheaper than petroleum diesel,” says Gay. “If we’re one penny over the cost of diesel per gallon, we’re sunk.” (In July, rising costs and technical problems forced GreenFuel to shut down the Redhawk bioreactor temporarily.)

Hard numbers—supply, efficiency, and, most important, price at the pump—will determine the future of ethanol and biodiesel. But for now green fuels have an undeniable romance. In the garage of his office complex in downtown Phoenix, Ray Hobbs, a senior engineer for APS who is leading the company’s fuel initiative, walks past a small fleet of electric cars, hybrids, even a hydrogen-powered bus. He climbs into a big diesel Ford van and turns the key. The exhaust, unlike a typical diesel’s, is invisible, with just the faintest whiff of diesel smell from the algae biodiesel made at the Redhawk pilot plant. The superslick plant oil has also quieted a little of that annoying diesel rattle.

“The way I think about these things is I’m sitting in a river in a canoe,” says Hobbs. “Now do I want to paddle upstream, or do I want to go with the flow? Algae is downstream, with the flow. We have processes in nature that are honed for us, that have evolved. So we can take those processes and make them faster and more efficient and harness that power. We can’t wait generations to screw around with this. We have to do it now.”

Hobbs says he has fielded dozens of calls from power companies interested in building an algae plant of their own to scrub emissions and help meet their renewable fuels mandate. The lure of plant fuels even seems to have reached the petroleum-rich sands of the Middle East, where the United Arab Emirates has launched a 250-million-dollar renewable energy initiative that includes biofuels—perhaps a sign that even the sheikhs now realize that the oil age won’t last forever. As precedents for such collective effort, people sometimes point to the Manhattan Project to build a nuclear weapon or the Apollo Program to put a man on the moon. But those analogies don’t really work. They demanded the intense concentration of money and intelligence on a single small niche in our technosphere. Now we need almost the opposite: a commitment to take what we already know how to do and somehow spread it into every corner of our economies, and indeed our most basic activities. It’s as if NASA’s goal had been to put all of us on the moon.”


ENERGY FARMING,28804,1733748_1733754_1735703,00.html
The Fuel Generation
BY Kobi Ben-Simhon  /  17/05/2008

When Dr. Isaac Berzin talks about algae, he forgets everything else. He starts talking a mile a minute, and sometimes he talks about true love. “When I look at them through the microscope, I see them doing belly dances, and they have this small mustache that they wave. They are really cute,” he says with a passion that he makes no effort to hide. He laughs and then pauses to reflect for a moment. “But because I am not a biologist I can look at them a little like a child,” he tries to explain. “Where a biologist would talk about filaments and other technical terms, I see a mustache and behavior. I am constantly dumbfounded by this plant. This little thing is the baseline for the production of oxygen in the world; it knows how to use carbon dioxide and turn it into oxygen. It amazes me that despite this, algae are not given enough respect, and instead are treated like green slime.”

When Berzin looks at algae, he sees a new world and a revolution. Dr. Berzin, 40, is wearing a blue suit, and his hair is held in place with glistening gel. Eight months ago he returned to Israel from the United States after generating a research breakthrough that changed his life. Berzin, the founder of GreenFuel Technologies – a U.S. company that produces green fuel from algae – discovered that “green slime” contains one of the keys to the alternative fuel the world is seeking. His company is the first ever to develop and produce biofuels from algae that are bred on gases emitted by power plants.

It might sound like some sort of magic trick to put algae, CO2 and sunlight into a box and come out with fuel, but Berzin did it. “I feel a bit like Thomas Edison, who invented the light bulb,” he says. “He tried thousands of materials until he arrived at the filament. My intuition, too, told me that it was possible to do something that people were only dreaming of – to build a device from algae to produce energy at market-compatible costs.

“It’s logical, really, when you think about it,” Berzin continues, “because all liquid fuels are compressed ancient organic matter, the outcome of photosynthesis. The liquid fuels that are pumped out of the earth are ancient plants. There are no miracles here. We just accelerated the process. A quarter of the weight of algae is vegetable oil from which biofuel can be produced, and the point was to control the biology. My goal was to adapt the algae to the local water and the local profile of the gases – to ensure they would be happy.”

In a large conference hall at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Berzin declares that the world is on the threshold of a vast change. “An era has ended,” he asserts without hesitation. “Until now we found a reserve of fuel and used it up. In comparison to the evolutionary process, we are at the transition from the stage of the collectors of food to the situation in which humanity began to engage in agriculture and grow food. That is what we are doing today: we are starting to grow our fuel. Our generation will go down in history as the ‘fuel generation.’ That generation is over. Man is moving from a situation in which he uses up the sources of energy to one in which he grows energy.”

Berzin’s odyssey began in 1999, immediately after he obtained his Ph.D. in chemical engineering at Ben-Gurion University. He then embarked on postdoctoral studies at MIT. That was a formative moment in his career. “I was in one of the world’s leading technological institutions. I was part of a NASA project to plan a facility for growing cells in the international space station. I had reached the cutting edge of the most prestigious project in NASA,” he says in an unsatisfied but emphatic tone. “I was working with the best and most brilliant minds that were dealing with a hallucinatory problem: how to grow cells in the space station. At the time, buses were blowing up every day in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. That preoccupied me. I thought to myself: Dear God, fuel is killing us. After all, those terrorists are funded by fuel powers. I felt it was off the wall to be dealing with cells in space, that I should be engaged with a problem whose solution would change the world: the problem of energy.”

On his desk at the time was a document issued by the U.S. Department of Energy. The idea of producing fuel from algae was not new. “It was known that vegetable oil is the original material of fuel,” Berzin explains. “In the 1970s and 1980s, in the wake of the fuel crises that were spawned by political crises, the national laboratory for alternative energy in the United States decided to try to produce fuel from algae. The idea was to use power plants that emit carbon dioxide in order to raise algae and produce green fuel from them. After 20 years of research and tens of millions of dollars, they concluded that it wouldn’t work. When I looked at their research, I discovered that they had actually taken carbon dioxide in a bottle and shaken it. They had not taken genuine gas emissions from power plants. I discovered that they had worked for 20 years and produced zero gallons of fuel. Twenty years and how many scientific articles? Hundreds. I realized that the project was an academic platform for them, that no one there was really determined to make fuel from algae.”

Berzin decided to act. He left MIT eight years ago and founded GreenFuel, whose professed aim is to produce green fuel from algae. The Israeli researcher was intent on solving the riddle that the best American researchers in the field had labored over for two decades. GreenFuel began to develop a distinctive method of reproducing algae, one that does not use up agricultural land or clean water, while at the same time consuming a considerable quantity of carbon dioxide, one of the most pernicious of the greenhouse gases. “In the technological world it was a crazy decision,” he admits. “You have to be crazy to leave an institution like MIT for an uncertain future.”

Berzin had no money to launch his ambitious project, so he borrowed $200,000 from two close friends. “Looking back on it today,” he says, “I understand how much I didn’t know. Because my instincts as a scientist were not suited to the business world. As a scientist, I thought that technological excellence was the key to success. Well, it’s not. A scientist who discovers something immediately rushes to tell the world; in the business world you keep your mouth shut and rush to the patent office. Berzin’s parents are academics: his father, an engineer, worked for Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), and his mother is an electrical engineer. “My father was an inventor, a very unconventional person. I had a passion for his work, so our home was always filled with broken machines and wrecked gears. In the 1980s, for example, there was an arrangement at IAI whereby if you come up with an efficiency proposal that saved money for the plant, you got 10 percent of the amount that was saved in the first year. My father made a lot of money that way.”

Berzin established his first energy farm adjacent to the power plant at MIT. That was the inception of a historic event, because at the end of the process, fuel was produced from carbon dioxide for the first time. “I introduced the gases into the system as they were and started to grow the algae in transparent plastic pipes. In effect, you become an ‘energy farmer.’ The algae grow on the liquid base. In the next stage of my experiments I grew the algae in a shallow, plastic-covered pool. The algae grow in the water and divide at a wild rate. In the morning the water is green and by evening it is already black. Afterward the algae are separated from the water. Every day I harvested a third of 10 centimeters, you pump out the liquid, and every day a third of the volume is taken.”

And the fuel is produced from the pulp of the algae? “Exactly. You separate the algae from the water, and then you have pulp, a green sludge from which the oil is extracted. Back then, all the existing technologies to separate algae from water were too expensive. I had to find a different technology. A researcher’s life is frustrating. I bear the scars of unsuccessful experiments, of a search for solutions and of failures. I remember a moment when I thought I was on the right track, and then I suddenly made a calculation and understood that the effort I had made to compress the gas was in vain. I realized that I was actually losing energy rather than producing energy.”

And then? “It was terribly difficult. You believe you have something, and in a split second you understand that you have nothing. And that was after building devices and investing a great deal of money. There was a crisis. I couldn’t believe it was happening to me. Anyone who wants to reach the top of a hill will follow every path; sometimes the path leads to a downturn, but you must not continue just because the landscape is pretty. As soon as you identify the mistake, you have to change course. We succeeded in finding a different path,” Berzin goes on. “I remember skeptics who told me I would never achieve what I wanted. ‘Do you know how much it costs to grow algae today?’ they said. That in fact was a crucial stage in the chain of challenges that prevented this from being a true and profitable technology. But we did it. From an installation of one square kilometer we are now producing five million liters of green fuel a year. After the technology was demonstrated at MIT, the next stage was to take it to a real power plant. Until then I had raised enough money to do it on a small scale. Now it was time to go big. So I went to Arizona.”

What had seemed to be science fiction became a thriving, measured business. Berzin has registered 12 patents that enshrine his rights to the technology connecting an energy farm to a power plant. In 2005, in the heart of the Arizona desert, he chalked up another achievement when he set up the world’s first trial project adjacent to a power plant of APS, Arizona’s largest electrical utility company. The director of the advanced fuels program of APS, Raymond Hobbs, relates that his Ford has been cruising the streets of Phoenix on green fuel since 2006. “My mandate is to burn fuel and produce electricity, but we have a problem called CO2,” he notes. “The good thing about Itzik’s [Isaac’s] technology is that we are recycling the toxin and creating a new industry. It’s a win-win situation for everyone. It’s not every day that you make a hole in the smokestack of a power plant that is worth billions of dollars and start to grow algae. I did it because I believed in Itzik. The first time we met, he showed up at my office with three people and said that was his whole company. I say that the size of a company does not determine the size of the head. One person’s idea can bring about tremendous change. I am certain that his technology will bring mankind lots of fuel, food and peace.”

But it turns out that persuading Hobbs was no easy task. “I came out of the MIT hothouses with a technology and a business model, but without any money,” Berzin says. “It was very hard for the electricity companies to put money into an idea like this. When Raymond first saw me enter his power plant in a suit, he muttered that he was in a hurry to get to another meeting. But in the end, if there is someone, such as me, for example, who in return for partnership in the business asks the electricity company only for the CO2 and its lands, the answer is very quickly yes. If they face no professional or economic risk, but only profit, they work with you straightaway.”

Financing for Berzin’s project actually came from Europe, where, he says, “quality of the environment” is a genuine, deep commitment. “In Europe they made a strategic decision to shift to green, so there is billions available for green projects. To sign contracts of $300 million to build an energy farm in Arizona and a second farm in Spain at a cost of $92 million, I found European partners willing to put up the money.”

Some will be critical of your partnership with power plants that are polluting the atmosphere. “People who develop green technologies are considered either hallucinatory types or enemies of the free market – people who demand to work for the environment with no economic logic. I don’t believe that is the right direction. The industry is aware of the environmental problem it is creating, and its alternative solution is to compress the CO2 as pure gas into the depths of the earth. But dumps like that might be released one day and cruise to the nearby city and kill millions of people before they fall to earth. Because carbon dioxide is a necessary byproduct in the burning process, the electricity companies are scared stiff, so they fight the Al Gores of the world. I am proposing a solution that not only does not cost them money, it makes money. I have turned things upside down – there is no punishment and no risk. So what’s the problem? I understood that I had to solve a tremendous problem of the industry in order to actualize my green technology.”

Does the fuel produced from algae compete with green fuels made from corn and soy? “It turns out that the biofuels produced from corn or soy seeds – fuels that are considered the future substitute for pollutant fuel – cause environmental damage themselves. It is also not economically viable: to grow the soy beans you need leaves and roots, a whole system that supports the beans from which the oil is produced. No such system is required to grow algae. Their rate of growth is 10 to 100 times that of any other biological system. So if you have a unit of land, you can achieve orders of production that are many times higher. This is a process that does not compete for land and water resources – algae can grow in saltwater and in sewage.”


Biofuel made from power plant CO2
BY Phil Mckenna  /  06 October 2006

“If you’re working at a power plant, you just saw your carbon dioxide turned into something you can drive home with.” So says Isaac Berzin of GreenFuel Technologies in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is developing a way of producing biofuel from the noxious emissions of power plants.

Two of the world’s greatest energy users are electricity generation and transport. Both are responsible for huge quantities of greenhouse gas emissions, as most power plants and vehicles still rely on fossil fuels. Now GreenFuel and others are hoping to marry the two together with an emerging technology that uses a by-product of one to supply fuel to the other. Doing so could dramatically reduce their overall carbon dioxide emissions.

At the heart of the technology is a plastic cylinder full of algae, which literally sucks the CO2 out of a power plant’s exhaust. The algae can in turn be converted into biofuel, creating a cycle that takes the carbon from the smokestack to the gas tank before it enters the atmosphere.

If successful, the technology could capture all of a power plant’s CO2 emissions. “Right now, when you say CO2, people want to hide under the table. Carbon dioxide is not something you want to pump underground, it’s something you want to reuse,” says Berzin.

To produce fuel from CO2, the flue gases are fed into a series of transparent “bioreactors”, which are 2 metres high and filled with green microalgae suspended in nutrient-rich water. The algae use the CO2, along with sunlight and water, to produce sugars by photosynthesis, which are then metabolised into fatty oils and protein. As the algae grow and multiply, portions of the soup are continually withdrawn from each reactor and dried into cakes of concentrated algae. These are repeatedly washed with solvents to extract the oil.

The algal oil can then be converted into biodiesel through a routine process called transesterification, in which it is processed using ethanol and a catalyst. Enzymes are then used to convert starches from the remaining biomass into sugars, which are fermented by yeasts to produce ethanol.

GreenFuel is testing a pilot facility at the Redhawk power station in the Arizona desert. The size of a couple of trailers, it treats a only a tiny fraction of the plant’s exhaust, but it works, and has so far produced several gallons of algal oil, which the company is planning to convert into biodiesel for the first time this week. A second, larger prototype of around 1300 square metres is now under construction.

This new facility will also capture the heat produced by the plant and use it to help dry the algae before the oil is extracted and converted to biodiesel. This excess heat could also make it easier to recover the solvent from the oil after extraction. “The main energy requirement is recovering the solvent from the oil once it is extracted,” says Berzin. “Seventy per cent of a coal-burning plant’s energy is lost as heat. That’s a lot of waste heat to use.”

GreenFuel has so far received more than $18 million in venture capital funding, and hopes to install a full-scale algal farm at least 1 kilometre square near the Redhawk plant by 2009. Berzin calculates that if the farm has enough algae to absorb all the CO2 produced by the 1000-megawatt plant, GreenFuel could ultimately produce more than 150 million litres of biodiesel and 190 million litres of ethanol a year. To do this, it would need a farm of between 8 and 16 square kilometres.

The idea of producing biofuel from algae is not new. The US Department of Energy began investigating algae in the 1970s during the global oil shortage. Researchers scoured the US, collecting more than 3000 different strains of “extremophile” algae that could withstand the high temperatures, salinity and pH required to absorb the exhaust from power plants.

The Aquatic Species Program, as it was known, grew the algae in open pond test sites in Hawaii, California and New Mexico, but was mothballed in 1996 when lower crude oil prices made it difficult for alternative fuels to compete. “It’s an entirely different world now,” says John Sheehan, an analyst with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, who worked on the project. “I’ve had a call or email a week enquiring about it.”

Although ahead of the competition in terms of developing prototype bioreactors, GreenFuel is not the first to use algae to produce samples of biofuel from power plant exhaust. In March Laurenz Thomsen and his team at the Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Project at the International University Bremen in Germany used microalgae to produce 10 millilitres of biodiesel. Thomsen is now working on a possible joint venture with GreenFuel to develop algae farms at CO2-belching coal-fired plants in eastern Europe.

“Using technology based mainly on GreenFuel, we can mitigate 50,000 tonnes of CO2 per square kilometre per year,” he says. Building a 1-square-kilometre facility would cost approximately $20 million, he estimates, but the payoffs would be equally large. “I think we are close to the point where we can gain $5 to $10 million a year by selling the fuel.”

Another company building a pilot algae reactor is New York-based Greenshift. The company plans to begin testing its reactor at a bioethanol plant in Iowa in early 2007, where waste CO2 is emitted when corn is converted into ethanol. “Roughly one-third of the corn that goes into a facility comes out as ethanol,” says Kevin Kreisler of Greenshift. “With algae and other technologies we can increase that to two-thirds.” Like GreenFuel, the company eventually plans to use the technology at power plants.

Instead of exposing the algae directly to sunlight, Greenshift uses an array of mirrored troughs and fibre optics to carry sunlight to the plants. Algae don’t need strong sunlight for photosynthesis, so the bioreactors could feasibly be housed in buildings or underground. “It’s all about efficiency,” says Kreisler. “By diffusing the light we can take one square metre of sunlight and spread it out over 10 square metres of growth plates, thus reducing the amount of land we need by a factor of 10.”

Indeed, one key advantage of algae farms over other sources of biofuel such as corn and soybeans is that they need much less space (New Scientist, 23 September, p 36). In Germany, where rapeseed is the primary crop used for biodiesel, it would take up to 33 times as much land as is needed by the algae bioreactors to produce the same amount of fuel, Thomsen says. What’s more, unlike other biofuel crops, algae do not require precious commodities like fresh water or fertile land. That makes the technology suitable for use in the deserts of the American south-west and China. “If you really want to make an impact on CO2, you have to look at the US and China,” Berzin says.

If the technology is to be successful, though, the energy industry will need to be convinced. Barry Worthington of the US Energy Association in Washington DC, which represents the electricity generators, says the economics of algal biofuel still have to be borne out. But he is optimistic about its potential. All the conventional ways of reducing CO2 emissions are considered a cost, he says. “This changes the dynamics dramatically.”

Algae Oil Maker Solazyme Gets $45.4 Million More
BY Michael Kanellos  /  August 26, 2008

Solazyme is continuing to move away from the pack in algae oil. The South San Francisco-based company has raised $45.4 million in a Series C funding, according to PE Hub. Investors included Braemar Energy Partners, Lightspeed Venture Partners and Harris & Harris group. The total includes $6.4 million in convertible securities. That brings the total raised by Solazyme, when grants and everything is mixed in, to close to $70 million by some estimates.

The company is both one of the oldest algae oil companies (dating way back to the first half of the decade) and one of the most novel. Rather than grow algae in ponds or closed-in water tubes called bioreactors through phototsynthesis, the company has identified species that grow by feeding off sugars in the dark. Solazyme effectively puts these algae and discarded plant matter into kettles and brews up algal blooms. The algae is then harvested for oil. Solazyme also genetically optimizes the natural strains of algae. By eliminating the need for water, Solazyme doesn’t have to worry about separating the algae from the water to harvest oil, a big problem. It can also control the growth of algae. The company initially tried to grow algae through photosynthesis but switched.

Solazyme also likes to point out that it has made oil, barrels of it, unlike many of the twenty plus algae companies out there today. It also has a development deal with Chevron. The company will also sell oil to the cosmetic industry and likely the food industry. I actually tried some brownies made with algae oil. They were good. The money will be used to scale up their existing manufacturing facilities. (Right now, the company is housed in a building that once served as an ice cream factory.)

Critics, though, note that sugar isn’t free, and say that the ecomonics of growing algae with water and free sunlight may win out. So we must wait and see. The company also isn’t the only one working on novel extraction or growing techniques. OriginOil is concocting a system that will force feed algae and then extract oil from the hapless critters with microwaves. Synthetic Genomics, meanwhile, is working on genetically modified algae that will expurgate their own, like sea cucumbers.


Jonathan Wolfson
email : jwolfson [at] solazyme [dot] com

Harrison Dillon
email : hdillon [at] solazyme [dot] com

Solazyme Showcases Jeep Fueled By Worlds First Algal-Based Renewable Diesel  /  Jan 27, 2009

Solazyme will feature a Jeep Liberty fueled by the world’s first algal-based renewable diesel, Soladiesel RDTM, at CALSTART Target 2030: Solutions to Secure California’s Transportation Energy and Climate Future in Sacramento, Calif.

The fuel, which is a drop-in replacement for standard petrodiesel (#2 Diesel), has passed American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) D975 specifications and will also be on display at the event. Both Soladiesel RDTM and Soladiesel BDTM, a FAME biodiesel that meets the (ASTM) D6751 specifications, have been successfully road tested unblended (100 percent) for thousands of miles in standard unmodified diesel engines.

The Jeep, which will be available for rides throughout the event, illustrates the compatibility of the fuel with current infrastructure. “With new elected officials across the country, now is an ideal time for events like CALSTART Target 2030, which look at energy solutions that will serve us in the long term,” said Jonathan Wolfson, co-founder, and CEO of Solazyme.

“We are proud to be in California, a state known for leading energy policy, and are pleased to showcase our solutions which include clean and scalable renewable fuels derived from algae that meet today’s demanding performance and regulatory specifications, while dramatically reducing the carbon footprint versus petroleum based-fuels.”

Solazyme’s unique process grows algae in the dark using standard industrial bioproduction equipment, where the algae are fed a variety of non-food and waste biomass materials including cellulosic biomass and low-grade glycerol. This allows the company to produce oil with a very low carbon footprint efficiently in a controlled environment.

Solazyme’s fuels have already been road tested in unmodified vehicles for thousands of miles. Solazyme also recently announced that it has produced the world’s first algal based jet fuel which met all eleven of the tested key criteria for (ASTM) D1655 (Jet A-1). Additionally, Solazyme’s process is the very first bridge from non-food carbohydrates and certain industrial waste streams to edible oils and oleochemicals.


Directed evolution is a term used to describe a broad class of proprietary and public domain methods that can be used to optimize biological functions. From single proteins to single metabolic pathways to whole cell functions involving interrelated pathways, the directed evolution process is a highly efficient way to engineer an organism to perform a desired function. The process at its most fundamental level involves two steps. The first step involves generating one or more genetic changes in a population of otherwise genetically homogeneous organisms or gene sequences. The second step involves determining which organism or gene from the mutated population performs the desired function better than the strain or gene before the genetic change was made. In preferred formats the process is iterative, where improved organisms or genes are further evolved to perform the desired function at an even higher level.

The directed evolution process as practiced by Solazyme is significantly automated through the use of robotic technology. Robotic technology serves to not only speed the process of assembling and testing large populations of mutated organisms of genes, but also to standardize the assay process. With robotic technology, tens of thousands of individual mutant organisms can be tested for an enhanced function in a matter of hours. The ability to perform such mass screening increases the number of improved organisms or gene sequences identified in an assay.

Even with robotic technology, directed evolution is not optimal unless the screening process is performed under commercial deployment conditions. This means that an organism selected for commercial bioproduction should be tested for optimal function under conditions that mimic, as closely as possible, the envisioned commercial production system. Solazyme’s proprietary screening systems are designed to closely mimic such conditions.

Algae Biodiesel: It’s $33 a Gallon
Drying, breeding and growing algae – particularly in large quantities – isn’t there yet, which means your fishtank is not a gold mine.
BY Michael Kanellos  /  February 3, 2009

You can grow algae with carbon dioxide and sunlight, but that doesn’t mean it’s free. Although many believe that algae will become one of the chief feedstocks for diesel and even hydrocarbon-like fuels, growing large amounts of algae and then converting the single-celled creatures remains expensive, said experts at the National Biodiesel Conference taking place in San Francisco on Tuesday.

Algae biofuel startup Solix, for instance, can produce biofuel from algae right now, but it costs about $32.81 a gallon, said Bryan Wilson, a co-founder of the company and a professor at Colorado State University. The production cost is high because of the energy required to circulate gases and other materials inside the photo bioreactors where the algae grow. It also takes energy to dry out the biomass, and Solix uses far less water than other companies.

By exploiting waste heat at adjacent utilities, the price can probably be brought down to $5.50 a gallon. By selling the proteins and other byproducts from the algae for pet food, the price can be brought to $3.50 a gallon in the near term. But that’s still the equivalent of $150 a barrel of oil. “We we’re excited in July [when oil was approaching that level],” he joked. “But we knew it wasn’t sustainable.”

It’s only in phase II of Solix’s business plan that it will be able to drop production costs to $3.30 to $1.57 a gallon, or around $60 to $80 a barrel. Solix has set a goal of cutting the cost of making algae by 90 percent. Is algae a good feedstock? Yes, he insisted. Ultimately, algae could yield 5,000 to 10,000 gallons an acre, far higher than other feedstocks. Soy is only good for around 40 to 50 gallons an acre. Touted plants like jatropha might only produce 175 gallons an acre, he said.

But algae comes with trade-offs. Wild algae grows fast, but it doesn’t yield tremendous amounts of oil naturally – two thirds or more of the body weight of wild algae will be proteins and carbohydrates instead of oil. Genetically modified algae can boost the oil content, but that slows the growth process. Closed bioreactors – i.e., sealed plastic bags placed in the sun — cost more than open ponds, but it’s tough to keep invasive species from taking over open ponds and out-competing algae optimized to produce oil. “There’s a dance between the growth rate and lipid content,” Wilson said.

Much of the cost reduction for Solix will be accomplished through extraction techniques the company hasn’t discussed yet. And algae companies will have to harvest everything their microorganisms produce. “We don’t have the solutions that are publicly discussed that give us the costs that we need,” he said, adding, “The value of the co-products have to be captured and the value of the co-products could exceed the value of the oil.”

Some companies, like Solazyme, are exploiting genetic science and fermenting techniques to accomplish the task. In fermentation, specific species of algae are locked into brewing kettles with sugars derived from old plant matter. When the time is right, Solazyme takes out the microbes and squeezes out the oil. It’s cheaper to get large volumes of feedstock oil through fermentation than growing algae in ponds or bioreactors, said CEO Jonathan Wolfson. Genetically modifying the algae can boost the lipid, or oil, content to 70 percent of the organism’s weight. In a sense, Solazyme practices indirect photosynthesis: the algae doesn’t grow by having sunlight shone upon it but by eating sugars that were grown in the sun.

“Algae is by far the best organism on the planet for converting fixed carbon into oil,” he said. “But economically, others are more efficient at taking sunlight and carbon dioxide and turning it into oil.” Solazyme says it will be capable of producing competitively priced fuel from algae in 24 to 36 months. Solazyme actually uses photosynthesis for growing some algae, but only higher value oils for the cosmetic or other industries.

Another, Phycal, is trying to harvest oil from algae without killing the algae. Instead, Phycal bathes the algae in solvents which can suck out the oil. Some strains of algae can go through the process four times or more. “Think of it as milking algae rather than sending it to the slaughterhouse,” said senior scientist Brad Postier. “By not killing the cells, we don’t have to grow the biomass again.”

Bryan Willson
email : Bryan.Willson [at] colostate [dot] edu

Bradley Postier
email : bpostier [at] biology2.wustl [dot] edu


High Density Vertical Bioreactor
The Holy Grail in the renewable energy sector has been to create a clean, green process which uses only light, water and air to create fuel. Valcent’s HDVB algae-to-biofuel technology mass produces algae, vegetable oil which is suitable for refining into a cost-effective, non-polluting biodiesel. The algae derived fuel will be an energy efficient replacement for fossil fuels and can be used in any diesel powered vehicle or machinery. In addition, 90% by weight of the algae is captured carbon dioxide, which is “sequestered” by this process and so contributes significantly to the reduction of greenhouse gases. Valcent has commissioned the world’s first commercial-scale bioreactor pilot project at its test facility in El Paso, Texas.

Current data projects high yields of algae biomass, which will be harvested and processed into algal oil for biofuel feedstock and ingredients in food, pharmaceutical, and health and beauty products at a significantly lower cost than comparable oil-producing crops such as palm and soyabean (soybean).

The HDVB technology was developed by Valcent in recognition and response to a huge unsatisfied demand for vegetable oil feedstock by Biodiesel refiners and marketers. Biodiesel, in 2000, was the only alternative fuel in the United States to have successfully completed the Environmental Protection Agency required Tier I and Tier II health effects testing under the Clean Air Act. These tests conclusively demonstrated Biodiesel’s significant reduction of virtually all regulated emissions. A U.S. Department of Energy study has shown that the production and use of Biodiesel, compared to petroleum diesel, resulted in a 78.5% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.

Algae, like all plants, require carbon dioxide, water with nutrients and sunlight for growth. The HDVB bioreactor technology is ideal for location adjacent to heavy producers of carbon dioxide such as coal fired power plants, refineries or manufacturing facilities, as the absorption of CO2 by the algae significantly reduces greenhouse gases. These reductions represent value in the form of Certified Emission Reduction credits, so-called carbon credits, in jurisdictions that are signatories to the Kyoto Protocol. Although the carbon credit market is still small, it is growing fast, valued in 2005 at $6.6 Billion in the European Union and projected to increase to $77 Billion if the United States accepts a similar national cap-and-trade program.

Valcent’s HDVB bioreactor system can be deployed on non-arable land, requires very little water due to its closed circuit process, does not incur significant labor costs and does not employ fossil fuel burning equipment, unlike traditional food/biofuel crops, like soy and palm oil. They require large agricultural acreage, huge volumes of water and chemicals, and traditional farm equipment and labor. They are also much less productive than the HDVB process: soybean, palm oil and conventional pond-grown algae typically yield 48 gallons, 635 gallons and 10,000 gallons per acre per year respectively.

Inside Sapphire’s Algae-Fuel Plans
BY Michael Kanellos  /  October 13, 2008

Sapphire Energy has been something of a mystery in the algae-fuel world. There are over 50 companies now touting that they will convert pond scum into liquid fuel (up from around four companies in 2006). Most of them, however, can’t get funding and many seem to be plying “me too” ideas borrowed from early algae advocates like GreenFuel Technologies.

So when Sapphire announced it had landed over $100 million in funding from, among others, Cascade Investment (the venture firm founded by Bill Gates) it drew attention. Only a few other algae companies – GreenFuel, Solazyme – have raised the tens of millions needed to move toward prototype production. The attention further magnified the fact that Sapphire has been somewhat tight lipped on its technology.

Last week, Tim Zenk, vice president of corporate affairs for the company, filled in some of the details. I’ve also included comment and speculation from some competitors. As a prelude, I’d like to point out that algae companies like to snipe at each other, similar to the way CIGS companies or Intel and AMD like to point out each others’ flaws. It will make a algae conference taking place next month in Seattle next month interesting.

Overall, Sapphire differs in that it plans to grow algae that will produce hydrocarbons – i.e., crude oils that can be somewhat quickly refined into liquid fuels, Zenk said. It believes it can produce crude algal oil, once in mass manufacturing, for $60 to $80 a barrel. “We’re very focused on fuels that are an exact replacement for gas, diesel and jet fuel,” he said. “You will get an exact replica of light, sweet crude.”

Most other algae companies are raising algae that will produce lipids, or naturally occurring fats. Lipids can be made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrocarbons only include hydrogen and carbon. (Lipid defines a quality of dissolving in fat but not water while hydrocarbon is a chemical definition.) Converting a lipid into a gas replacement or other type of fuel can take additional processing. Still, the lipid algae companies say they can produce oil in at the same range.

How does Sapphire get algae to produce substances that are less natural for it to produce? Genetic engineering. The company comes out of research conducted at The Scripps Research Institute and the University of California San Diego by Stephen Mayfield and others. You can call UCSD Bacteria U. It has been a center of biotech research for years and now is spawning a number of biofuel and green chemistry companies all based around using microorganisms as chemical factories. Sapphire has already produces samples of a fuel equivalent to 91 octane gas.

Some sources have said that Arch Venture Partners commissioned the original research and then formed the company around that research. Arch partner Robert Nelsen has been involved in several early biotech startups. I still need to confirm this last point about Sapphire’s birth.

Genetic engineering also influences how Sapphire will grow its algae. It wants to grow the algae in open, saline ponds, rather than sealed bioreactors, like Greenfuel. The company also says that it has minimized the danger of rogue algal blooms from its genetically enhanced algae ponds as well as the risk that natural strains will out-compete its algae or eliminate its special qualities through hybridization. “We will optimize it to live only in certain conditions,” Zenk said.

Algae execs at competitors tend to scoff at this notion. The challenges keeping wild species at bay, getting consistent results generation to generation represent massive problems. And one can only imagine the land-use hearings when Sapphire says it wants to build a pond to raise GMO algae. Again, it is their job to scoff,  but they have a point.

Eliminating the salt water from the algae is a doable problem, added Zenk. Water extraction techniques from other industries will be borrowed. Again, many competitors (and scientists at NREL) have said that water extraction has been one of the lingering problems in algae fuel.

Money is not an issue, he added. The company has raised far in excess of $100 million. That figure has cause many to speculate if some of the funding is contingent. Typically, biotech companies only get a limited amount of money – $15 million or so – until the science has been proven. Then the big dollars flow in. If you look at the filings with the California Department of Corporations, it says that in August Sapphire sold $18.7 million worth of stock as part of a $11.7 million Series B round of fundraising. The California filings do not contain all of the contributions to the round. The SEC document, which you can get if you are in Washington, has more information. Either way, Zenk was fairly unambiguous about the company having the money.

In a swipe at competitor Solyazme, Zenk said that brewing algae fuel by feeding algae sugars won’t be tenable at a large scale. “There isn’t enough farm land in the world” to grow the sugar. In a video a few weeks ago, Solazyme said that growing algae in ponds wasn’t tenable: The company tried it before switching to sugars.

Lastly, Sapphire says that it hopes to be able to prove its main concept – that genetically optimized algae grown in outdoor ponds that produce hydrocarbons on a large scale – within three to five years. Note, he didn’t say they will produce oil in three to five years. He said they could prove the concept. Thus, when Sapphire can produce fuel is still a bit murky. If the concept can be proven, expect even a bigger flood of investors. Then again, other algae comapanies say they could well be in production by then, which could make it a real horse race.

Trying to Turn San Diego into the Green Houston
BY David Washburn  /  Jan. 1, 2009

San Diego, already home to dozens of companies involved in solar or wind energy, would be a major player in the nation’s multi-trillion-dollar energy economy if a group of local researchers succeed in turning algae into a commercially viable transportation fuel, something they think they can do within a decade. “[It] is the scientific challenge of our generation,” said Stephen Mayfield, a cell biologist and associate dean at the Scripps Research Institute, referring to the need to cure America of its 200-billion-gallon-a-year oil addiction. “And algae is the answer.”

And a top-notch research infrastructure, a thriving biotech sector and proximity to cheap land in Imperial County, where the plant could be grown on a large scale with plenty of sun, combine to give San Diego a strong foundation for building on algae’s future. Mayfield is one of several scientists at both Scripps institutions and the University of California, San Diego who are considered among the word’s foremost algae researchers. Other prominent names are Steve Kay, dean of the division of Biological Sciences at UCSD, and B. Gregory Mitchell, a biologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

The consensus is that the technology exists to make algae-based fuels commercially viable within five to 10 years. Others say it could be less than four years. But there are daunting economic and political obstacles, including the stubbornly high cost of extracting oil from algae, and a strong lobby that wants corn to be the primary source of biofuel production in this country.

A growing number of venture capitalists are acknowledging these obstacles, yet banking on them being overcome. San Diego is home to several algae start-ups, the largest being Sapphire Energy, which was founded with Mayfield’s help and has 80 employees and more than $100 million in venture capital funding. Kay is a founder of Biolight, which has received funding from Bay Area-based CMEA Ventures. “Long term, I see great potential,” said Michael Melnick, a partner in CMEA Ventures. “(But) it will take longer than people think, and take a lot of government support.”

In recent years some of the area’s biggest players have decided they want a piece of the green spongy stuff. And, after abandoning algae as a viable biofuel in the 1990s, the federal government is again funding research.

General Atomics and SAIC, two of the region’s largest defense contractors, have algae programs, and last month each received a multi-million dollar grant from the U.S. Defense Department to develop jet fuel from the plant. General Atomics has about 40 people dedicated to its algae program, and expects to receive $40 million from the Pentagon over the next three years.

“If we are successful at this it will not only solve the fuel problem, it will solve the economy problem,” said David Hazlebeck, the biofuels program manager for General Atomics. “It could translate into several trillion (dollars) in economic activity.”

Kay estimates that research and development activities in San Diego County and large-scale growing operations in Imperial County could combine to create jobs in the tens of thousands. “Our vision is that San Diego will become the green Houston of the world,” he said, referring to the tens of billions of dollars annually that oil and gas exploration contributes to Houston’s economy.

However, a lot has to happen before these visions can become real. Algae companies are a long way from having the same local impact as Qualcomm, the wireless communications giant, or even that of San Diego-based Amylin, the biotech that developed a diabetes drug based on the saliva of a Gila monster.

“It is important not to overhype algae,” said Lisa Bicker, president of CleanTECH San Diego, a green industry association. “We are excited about it, but it is early.”

Biofuels in general have yet to live up to the hype. There is a broad consensus that the industrialized world’s addiction to petroleum is leading us down a path toward both environmental and economic destruction. But finding a cheap and efficient way to produce mass quantities of fuel out something other than oil has proven difficult.

Corn-based ethanol, the oil alternative that has garnered the most attention — not to mention billions of dollars in government subsidies — is now considered by many to be a bad idea. For one thing, every acre of corn used for ethanol is an acre that can’t be used for food. The result has been years of steep inflation in the price of corn-based staples, which has disproportionally hurt the poorest on the planet.

Corn ethanol has been a bust environmentally as well. Though the final product burns cleaner than petroleum, its carbon footprint isn’t greatly different from oil when all of the greenhouse gases emitted while it is being fertilized and harvested are taken into account. “When it is all said and done you only get a 10 percent reduction in greenhouse gases with corn,” Kay said.

Cellulosic ethanol, which is produced from wood, grasses and the non-edible parts of plants, is better environmentally than corn ethanol, but it requires lots of fertile land and lots of irrigation. And ethanol, no matter where it comes from, is far more corrosive than petroleum and would require a significant investment to either retrofit or replace pipelines, experts say.

Algae, on the other hand, can be grown almost anywhere there is water, sunlight and carbon dioxide, including stagnant ponds, wastewater treatment plants or any number of other godforsaken places. “The Salton Sea is 378-square miles of crap, that is a good place for algae,” Mayfield said.

It also wins on several other levels. It is a carbon-neutral energy source because the carbon dioxide it consumes while growing counterbalances the emissions from the burning of algae-based fuel. And the process by which the oil is extracted from algae (similar to the process of separating the liquid from a grape) is also carbon-neutral, unlike the harvesting of corn. Finally, the oil produced by algae can be shipped via the existing pipeline structure.

The rub with algae is the cost. Right now, extracting the oil from algae is an expensive process — producing a gallon of algae-based gasoline, diesel or jet fuel can cost $30. It has to get down to under $2 per gallon before it will be a viable alternative to petroleum.

More than a decade ago, the U.S. government concluded that it couldn’t be done. The Department of Energy had an algae program from 1978 to 1996, and in the end found that “even with aggressive assumptions about biological productivity, we project costs for biodiesel which are two times higher than current petroleum diesel fuel costs.”

The academics and the folks at General Atomics think they can prove the government wrong within a few years. Hazlebeck, the General Atomics biofuels chief, said the company has developed a plan to build a 40-acre demonstration plant that would produce algae fuel for $1 per gallon within three years. That does not, however, mean that motorists will be pumping algae into their tanks by 2011.

That will take government help. And the most difficult obstacle may be political — specifically the nine corn-growing states, whose 18 U.S. Senators (including President-elect Obama) have consistently voted as a block in favor of subsidies for corn ethanol. The algae industry lacks such a coalition, and will not be able to move from the prototype to mass production phases without subsidies, said Kay and others. “Algae should have the same subsidies as corn,” Kay said. “The good news is momentum is building for us, but it is still David v. Goliath.”

Stephen Mayfield
email : mayfield [at] scripps [dot] edu

Steve Kay
email : skay [at] ucsd [dot] edu

Greg Mitchell
email : gmitchell [at] ucsd [dot] edu

David Hazlebeck
email : david.hazlebeck [at] gat [dot] com

BioFuels – Cellulosic and Algal Feedstocks / BAA08-07
Archive Date: November 29, 2008

DARPA is soliciting innovative research proposals in the area of technologies that enable the affordable production of a surrogate for petroleum based military jet fuel (JP-8) from agricultural or aquacultural crops that are non-competitive with food material. This current solicitation expands the scope of the BioFuels program described in BAA06-43 ( to additionally focus on: (1) processes for the affordable and efficient conversion of cellulosic materials to JP-8, and (2) processes for the affordable and efficient production of algal feedstock material for conversion to JP-8. Proposed research should investigate innovative approaches that enable revolutionary advances in science, devices, or systems. Specifically excluded is research that primarily results in evolutionary improvements to the existing state of practice.

Douglas Kirkpatrick
email :

US military funds $35M in research of algae-based jet fuel
BY Emma Ritch  /  2008-12-22

A sector of the U.S. Department of Defense has signed nearly $35 million in contracts with two San Diego companies to develop biofuel derived from algae for use in Air Force jets and Army vehicles. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) signed a $14.9 million deal with Science Applications International to work on making the algae-based jet fuel commercially and technically feasible. DARPA also signed a $19.9 million deal with General Atomics to research algae-based fuel. The two agreements are expected to last through 2010.

For several years, the U.S. Department of Defense has been searching for an alternative to its Jet Propellant 8 (JP-8) fuel for military jets. In 2006, DARPA signed an 18-month, $5 million contract with the Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) at the University of North Dakota to develop a JP-8 substitute. The EERC plans to participate in the new research with General Atomics.

Another General Atomics partner is UOP, a Honeywell company, which received $6.7 million in funding frrom DARPA to in June 2007 accelerate research and development on making military jet fuel out of vegetable and algal oils. Other partners in the General Atomics reserach are the Scripps Institutions of Oceanography, Arizona State University, Blue Sun Biodiesel, Texas A&M AgriLIFE, Hawaii Bio Energy, and Utah State University.

DARPA says that more than 90 percent of the fuel used by the Department of Defense is JP-8, amounting to 71 million barrels and a cost of $6 billion in 2006. The kerosene-based fuel is less flammable and less hazardous than other fuel options, allowing for better safety and combat survivability. JP-8 is also used to fuel heaters, stoves, tanks, and other vehicles in military service. Commercial airliners use Jet A and Jet A-1, which is also kerosene-based.


Continental completes first US test of biofuel
BY Megan Kuhn  /  08/01/09

Continental Airlines today completed the first alternative fuels trial in the US with a twin engine aircraft powered in part by a biofuel blend consisting of algae. Continental pilots operated a Boeing 737-800 using a blend of 50% jet fuel and 50% biofuel derived from algae (2.5%) and jatropha plant (47.5%) oils to power the right CFM International CFM56-7B engine. The left engine flew on 100% jet fuel. “It went absolutely textbook,” Continental flight test captain Rich Jankowski says, adding that he did not expect that much difference between the fuels.

During the roughly two-hour trial in Houston, Continental recorded various flight parameters and ran acceleration and deceleration checks, two inflight engine shut-downs and restarts–one wind milling start and one starter assist–and a simulated landing and go-around, Jankowski says. The aircraft also simulated the highest, most difficult altitude the airline flies, Quito, Ecuador, he adds. Findings include the thrust setting of the engines was the same, but fuel flow and exhaust gas temperature was slightly less for the engine using the biofuel blend, Jankowski says.

The biofuel-blend-powered engine burned slightly less fuel than the engine powered by Jet A for the same thrust setting, Continental manager of training standards captain Jackson Seltzer explains. The right engine used 3,600lbs of the biofuel blend and the left engine burned 3,800lbs of jet fuel, he says. Both fuels emit roughly the same amount of CO2 inflight, but overall emissions savings are realized during the production of biofuels, which unlike Jet A, absorb CO2, Continental chairman and CEO Larry Kellner says.

The aircraft, which operated with an experimental aircraft type certificate, will return to revenue service by midday tomorrow after a borescope inspection of the engine, fuel filters are changed and the fuel tank is washed out with Jet A, Seltzer says. Continental does not have plans to participate in a second trial and while other carriers have expressed interest, it is unlikely additional demonstrations will occur this year after a 30 January test by Japan Airlines.

“We’re encouraging people to look at the data collected to see what’s missing before [new trial] flights,” Boeing managing director for environmental strategy Billy Glover says, adding he does not expect fuel-certifying organization ASTM International to request additional commercial aircraft alternative fuel demonstrations. Instead, Glover says he expects ASTM will request endurance testing on specific engine components.

Turning algae into ethanol, and gold
BY Carli Ghelfi  /  2008-06-11

Is it, in fact, a watershed in biofuels from algae? Naples, Fla.-based Algenol Biofuels says it has found a way to inexpensively bring third-generation biofuels to industrial scale. And, unlike most algal biofuel companies, it’s apparently got a licensing deal for an $850 million project to show for it.

The company believes its seawater-based process can generate up to a billion gallons of algal ethanol per year from a facility in Mexico. “We’re not in the biodiesel business, the lipids business or oil business,” according to CEO Paul Woods. “We believe we have the most advanced third-generation technology. Our process is completely different.”

Algenol claims to use algae, sunlight, CO2 and seawater in closed bioreactors to produce ethanol, not the biodiesel most conventional algae companies are pursuing. Woods told Cleantech Group today that because his company does not use freshwater and does not harvest the algae, the process is much less expensive. “You have to do it cheaply, or you have no process,” said Woods.

Woods did not specify how cheap, however. With a reported 11 years of research and 10 years of patents under its belt, Algenol formally introduced itself and an $850 million project with Sonora Fields S.A.P.I. de C.V., a wholly owned subsidiary of Mexican-owned BioFields.

The privately-funded company said it is expecting yields of 6,000 gallons per acre per year, and expects to increase that figure to 10,000 by year end. By contrast, corn yields approximately 360 gallons per acre per year, and sugarcane 890 gallons, according to Woods. “Basically we can take in 1.5 million tons of CO2 and convert it into 100 million gallons of ethanol,” said Woods. “We will be the largest consumer of CO2 on the planet.”

The Algenol process occurs in bioreactors that are three-feet by fifty-feet and shaped like soda bottles, said Woods. According to Woods, during the process, algae consumes sunlight and more than 90 percent of the system’s CO2 through photosynthesis, wherein the sugars are converted into ethanol. The ethanol is immediately pumped out and evaporates into the bioreactor which is captured every night. “This process overcomes the enormous problems other companies face,” said Woods. “We don’t use food. We don’t use feedstock. We don’t use freshwater,” emphasized Woods. “All this really helps the cost structure.”

Woods said a production facility in Sonora, Mexico is expected to be online at the end of 2009, scaling to an anticipated 1 billion gallons in four-and-a-half years, involving some 3.5 million bioreactors. The licensing agreement with Mexico’s Biofields reportedly involves a deal to sell the ethanol to the Mexican government. “We’re making a significant departure from other technologies because we’re making ethanol now, and will be selling it next year,” continued Woods. “I think we will be supplying the cheapest fuel on the planet.”

In an effort to make waves with the U.S. government, Woods visited Washington D.C. last week to formally introduce his technology and explain how there are other ways to ethanol than just cellulosic ethanol. Since its inception in 2006, the privately funded company has seen $70 million in investments, with zero venture capital money to its name, said Woods. He explained that the majority of the money comes from the founders, of whom the majority has made successful exits as former CEOs from the natural gas and pharmaceutical industries.

Ethanol Producer Algenol Bets On New Production Method
BY Steve Gelsi  /  9/23/2008

Paul Woods traces the origins of Algenol Biofuels to his college days in the mid-1980s, with the idea of alternative energy sustained by memories of the oil embargo of the prior decade. At around that time, gasohol started taking root in the U.S., but then it quickly faded as oil prices fell. But Woods stayed at work on the idea of using algae to produce ethanol. Along the way, Woods managed to build up and sell his natural-gas company, United Gas Management, and channel those resources into algae. He formed Algenol in 2006 along with Craig Smith and Ed Legere. Now, armed with patents, several test facilities around the world, and some $70 million in private backing, Woods is targeting his first large-scale ethanol production facility with output that may rival that of some of the category’s largest U.S. players.

Algenol inked a partnership with BioFields, which has committed $850 million to build an industrial-scale ethanol facility in Mexico on 102,000 acres of desert located near the Pacific coast and not far from Cabo San Lucas. “We don’t use farm land, we don’t consume any food and [we use] no fresh water,” reported Woods, who has said hopes to bring the plant on line by the end of next year. “It’s time to focus on California, Texas and Florida. We want to have a major plant on U.S. soil. Cheap energy is a matter of national security.”

Woods holds a half-full plastic bottle of Gatorade sideways to illustrate the functioning of the firm’s 5-feet-by-20-feet plastic holding tanks. Using a patented algae, Alegenol fills each tank with seawater and places the water-based plant inside. As the algae grows, Alegenol will tap into carbon dioxide from a nearby power plant and funnel it into the tanks. The algae takes the gas and converts it into oxygen and evaporated alcohol, which is then removed and concentrated for use as fuel. Unlike other algae players that make diesel oil by processing algae itself, Algenol doesn’t spend time or energy removing the algae. It uses the ethanol vapors that the plant emits.

Algenol forecasts sales from the Mexico plant by the end of 2009 at price levels comparable to other U.S. ethanol makers. It says the plant will have a capacity of 1 billion gallons per year, much of which will be transported by ship to Mexican oil refineries nearby to be blended into gasoline. So far, Algenol’s test facilities have yielded 6,000 gallons of ethanol per acre per year, with yields expected to grow to 10,000 gallons of ethanol per year by the end of 2008. The company formally met with Wall Street for the first time Monday at the UBS Global Life Sciences Conference in New York as a step toward a possible financing round down the road. Algenol plans to seek federal, state and local assistance to bring U.S. facilities on line. Refiners are interested in buying ethanol because it’s cheaper than buying crude oil in many cases, he said.

Algenol sees itself helping the U.S. reduce its oil imports, it has said, while adding to the ethanol supply from fellow ethanol makers such as VeraSun Energy (VSE), Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and Aventine Renewable (AVR). Privately-held Poet, based in Sioux Falls, S.D., bills itself as  the largest ethanol producer in the world, according to the Renewable Fuels Association, with 24 production facilities in the United States and more than 1.4 billion gallons of ethanol annually. “We see ourselves as standing on the shoulders of the corn-ethanol business,” said Algenol Chief Operating Officer Craig Smith. “We want to expand the market. There will be enough demand for ethanol and other biofuels for all producers. It’s an insatiable market.”


Carbon dioxide is not the only waste substance algae can convert into biofuel. Algae also like to munch on the organic matter in human waste, producing a carbon-rich oil. Aquaflow Bionomic of Marlborough, New Zealand, is extracting oil from the algae that grow naturally in wastewater treatment facilities. In May the company produced its first 300-millilitre test batch of biodiesel, and hopes to have enough to fuel a vehicle test drive this year. “There is a certain elegance to unlocking the waste flow and turning it into a significant asset,” says Nick Gerritsen of Aquaflow. “If you leave a bucket outside your back door anywhere in the world it will turn green with algae. We are basically leveraging existing assets, because sewage ponds exist all over.”

Nigerian Converts Septic Tank into a BioReactor  /  April 30, 2008

Olatubosun Obayomi Adeleke reports on his progress in converting a septic tank into a biogas reactor at a guest house in Abuja, Nigeria. The major idea and inspiration of this effort is that septic tanks can be converted over to bioreactors for a very minimum cost in Nigeria to provide energy and fertilizer for the gardens. The focus of the project is to demonstrate how a biogas facility can be developed using local organic waste to produce electricity. This innovative project if developed into a best practice could potentially be a low cost way to increase power reliability in regions like Nigeria where power outages are an common event.

About the Digester and the Process
A particular kind of reactor; an Upflow Anaerobic Sludge Blanket design is used. The UASB is basically a system that uses the build up (that’s sludge blanket) of solids granules in wasteflows to filter solids. It works at very low pressures as the flow of incoming effluent forces the effluent forward into the system. The solids particles are digested by bacteria as they flow through the sludge blanket. As the bacteria digest them, they release gas (biogas), which flow to the top of the digester and is then piped out as a energy source. When the solids granules are fully digested (about 30 days), they are discarded by the mat/sludge blanket in much the same way an animal excretes what it now sees as spent matter or waste. These granules then mixed again with the effluent and flow out into outflow pipe of the digester for further processing. In this particular configuration he is using a Horizontal design. It works the same way with the vertical UASBs, but the flow of wastes is horizontal while the gas still flows vertically. It has a baffle to retard wastes for a longer period to form the slugde banket as the vertical cone does in the vertical UASB.

Converting Septic Tanks to Transform Waste into Resources
Normally the septic tank encourages growth of pathogens and drains directly into the ground through what are called Lateral Lines (a series of pipes diffusing the septic tank effluent flow into the ground). By converting the septic tank into biodigester BOD is reduced by 60%. The second chamber is designed to expose effluent to sunlight to enable a further reduction in BOD while draining. The digester opening will be sealed with cement and will only be opened for repairs.

Collection of Solids in the Manhole for use in the Gardens
In these kind of digesters, there is a element called a Manhole. It is a box on the side and in some digesters it is the point of solids collection. The solids can then be used to fertilize gardens. After the waste is processed in the digester, it enters the manhole where the solids settle at the bottom. A pipe then links the manhole to the drainage chamber where the effluent is allowed to settle into the ground.

Pre-mixing the Waste
All pipes from the residences of the 8 residence addition to the resort will be connected directly to the digester system. However the occupants will not provide enough biomass production to satisfy the digester and so a nearby farm has been selected as a source for animal waste that will be added and mixed with the human excrement and kitchen wastes. In the system there is a separate, premix chamber where the farm waste will be added. The mason is seen working on the premix chamber (Picture 19). By Obayomi’s estimate the waste mixture will be: 10% Human excrement; Kitchen waste 10%; and animal wastes 80%. The plan is to supply the wastes in bags in a dried state, to avoid odor in transportation.

Biofuel: a tankful of weed juice
It has been blamed for using up food stock, but biofuel is now being made from otherwise useless plant waste
BY Mark Harris  /  May 25, 2008

In recent months biofuels have earned a reputation blacker than the crude oil they are meant to be replacing. No sooner do we learn that rainforests from Indonesia to Brazil are being razed to farm “green” fuels for the West than intensive production of biofuels is blamed for the current crisis in world food prices. And apparently some biofuels create more potentially harmful ozone than petrol does.

Before we give up on alternative fuels and dive back into an ever-shallower pool of crude oil, though, let’s spare a thought for a new batch of biofuels being cooked up in laboratories worldwide. They hold the promise of more efficient, cleaner energy sources that don’t compete with forests or food crops for growing space. Airbus, the maker of the A380, the largest passenger aircraft in the world, announced last week that it expects these second-generation biofuels to make up (eventually) a third of all aviation fuel.

Getting new biofuels off the ground is taking some doing. Starchy and sugary crops such as wheat and sugar cane make good biofuels because they are easily converted to ethanol, while oily sunflower and palm plants can readily be made into biodiesel. It would make much more sense, however, to produce biofuels from weeds growing on land that can’t be farmed, or from agricultural waste, old wood chips or even secondhand paper.

The world’s biggest second-generation biofuel factory is due to open in Georgia, USA, next year. Range Fuels’ Soperton plant is expected to produce 16m gallons of ethanol biofuel annually from logging waste and grasses. This may not sound a lot in global terms but it is the start of something much bigger: a 13 billion-gallon ocean of second-generation biofuels that the USA is aiming to produce by 2022.

Meanwhile, Warwick HRI, the horticultural research division of Warwick University, is doing its bit in Britain. It is working on ways to turn worthless material such as straw into valuable fuel right on the farm, using a combination of bacteria and fungi.

Guy Barker, the research leader, says, “If we could break down straw into a liquid form on the farm, it could then be shipped straight to a refinery, like crude oil. Any leftover material on the farm could be worked back into the ground to sustain future crops.”

The Warwick process, which is still some way from commercial viability, will be slower than the enzyme system preferred by the Americans. “But do you want speed or do you want efficiency?” Barker asks. “Transporting large amounts of waste biomass to factories becomes a real problem, and the cost is high.”

While the new fuels do not threaten rainforests or food supplies, they are not without problems. Scientists at the Global Invasive Species Programme, an international group dedicated to monitoring and tackling invasive plants and animals introduced from one region to another, warned last week that countries importing plants for biofuels could also be importing a host of problems. It estimates that alien species cost the world economy £700 billion every year. It instances plants such as the giant reed, Chinese silvergrass and the sawtooth oak as species that are being cultivated in Europe despite being highly invasive.

We have recently learnt that every environmental solution brings its own set of problems. Fair trade or transport miles? Fossil-fuel power stations or carbon-free nuclear ones? Genetic crop engineering or pesticides? Biofuels or food riots?

You can’t win ’em all, so it’s a matter of choosing the least worst option. Right now that looks like second-generation biofuels.

Guy Barker
email : Guy.Barker [at] [dot] uk

Scientists find bugs that eat waste and excrete petrol
BY Chris Ayres   /  June 14, 2008

“Ten years ago I could never have imagined I’d be doing this,” says Greg Pal, 33, a former software executive, as he squints into the late afternoon Californian sun. “I mean, this is essentially agriculture, right? But the people I talk to – especially the ones coming out of business school – this is the one hot area everyone wants to get into.” He means bugs. To be more precise: the genetic alteration of bugs – very, very small ones – so that when they feed on agricultural waste such as woodchips or wheat straw, they do something extraordinary. They excrete crude oil.

Unbelievably, this is not science fiction. Mr Pal holds up a small beaker of bug excretion that could, theoretically, be poured into the tank of the giant Lexus SUV next to us. Not that Mr Pal is willing to risk it just yet. He gives it a month before the first vehicle is filled up on what he calls “renewable petroleum”. After that, he grins, “it’s a brave new world”.

Mr Pal is a senior director of LS9, one of several companies in or near Silicon Valley that have spurned traditional high-tech activities such as software and networking and embarked instead on an extraordinary race to make $140-a-barrel oil (£70) from Saudi Arabia obsolete. “All of us here – everyone in this company and in this industry, are aware of the urgency,” Mr Pal says.

What is most remarkable about what they are doing is that instead of trying to reengineer the global economy – as is required, for example, for the use of hydrogen fuel – they are trying to make a product that is interchangeable with oil. The company claims that this “Oil 2.0” will not only be renewable but also carbon negative – meaning that the carbon it emits will be less than that sucked from the atmosphere by the raw materials from which it is made.

LS9 has already convinced one oil industry veteran of its plan: Bob Walsh, 50, who now serves as the firm’s president after a 26-year career at Shell, most recently running European supply operations in London. “How many times in your life do you get the opportunity to grow a multi-billion-dollar company?” he asks. It is a bold statement from a man who works in a glorified cubicle in a San Francisco industrial estate for a company that describes itself as being “prerevenue”.

Inside LS9’s cluttered laboratory – funded by $20 million of start-up capital from investors including Vinod Khosla, the Indian-American entrepreneur who co-founded Sun Micro-systems – Mr Pal explains that LS9’s bugs are single-cell organisms, each a fraction of a billionth the size of an ant. They start out as industrial yeast or nonpathogenic strains of E. coli, but LS9 modifies them by custom-de-signing their DNA. “Five to seven years ago, that process would have taken months and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he says. “Now it can take weeks and cost maybe $20,000.”

Because crude oil (which can be refined into other products, such as petroleum or jet fuel) is only a few molecular stages removed from the fatty acids normally excreted by yeast or E. coli during fermentation, it does not take much fiddling to get the desired result. For fermentation to take place you need raw material, or feedstock, as it is known in the biofuels industry. Anything will do as long as it can be broken down into sugars, with the byproduct ideally burnt to produce electricity to run the plant.

The company is not interested in using corn as feedstock, given the much-publicised problems created by using food crops for fuel, such as the tortilla inflation that recently caused food riots in Mexico City. Instead, different types of agricultural waste will be used according to whatever makes sense for the local climate and economy: wheat straw in California, for example, or woodchips in the South.

Using genetically modified bugs for fermentation is essentially the same as using natural bacteria to produce ethanol, although the energy-intensive final process of distillation is virtually eliminated because the bugs excrete a substance that is almost pump-ready. The closest that LS9 has come to mass production is a 1,000-litre fermenting machine, which looks like a large stainless-steel jar, next to a wardrobe-sized computer connected by a tangle of cables and tubes. It has not yet been plugged in. The machine produces the equivalent of one barrel a week and takes up 40 sq ft of floor space.

However, to substitute America’s weekly oil consumption of 143 million barrels, you would need a facility that covered about 205 square miles, an area roughly the size of Chicago. That is the main problem: although LS9 can produce its bug fuel in laboratory beakers, it has no idea whether it will be able produce the same results on a nationwide or even global scale. “Our plan is to have a demonstration-scale plant operational by 2010 and, in parallel, we’ll be working on the design and construction of a commercial-scale facility to open in 2011,” says Mr Pal, adding that if LS9 used Brazilian sugar cane as its feedstock, its fuel would probably cost about $50 a barrel.

Are Americans ready to be putting genetically modified bug excretion in their cars? “It’s not the same as with food,” Mr Pal says. “We’re putting these bacteria in a very isolated container: their entire universe is in that tank. When we’re done with them, they’re destroyed.” Besides, he says, there is greater good being served. “I have two children, and climate change is something that they are going to face. The energy crisis is something that they are going to face. We have a collective responsibility to do this.”

Shrimp solving the energy crisis?
BY Jessica M. Sibley  /  November 29, 2008

During an age where fuel efficiency and environmental sustainability sit at the forefront of concerned citizens’ minds, Clemson University (CU) biochemists and students are being led by Professor David Brune, expert in aquaculture, on a journey to find, harvest and use alternative fuels that will benefit the economy in the future.

The two key items necessary in turning that hope into reality are algae and brine shrimp, Brune said. Commonly known as “sea monkeys,” these tiny aqua creatures are the final piece of a puzzle that Brune has been working on for many years. In addition to renewable resources like peaches, wind and oils from beans, CU is working on extracting oils from algae to convert into biodiesel.

However, even though algae have been proven to produce 100 times more fuel than soybean oil, it’s very difficult to extract and convert into usable fuel. That’s where the shrimp come in. Thanks to Brune, food scientist Feng Chen and chemist Lance Beecher, these small organisms are working hard to extract algae oils that one day, could be the answer to our fuel crisis. “I originally started my focus on oils for food,” Brune said. “But as the government’s interest changed, the push for alternative fuels changed the direction to where we are now.”

The first step in extracting oils from algae starts with the growing of algae at a very high rate. CU uses a paddle wheel-driven system that is used to push the water around in a certain path, which ultimately, increases the aqua growth rate immensely. Then, the brine shrimp are introduced to start harvesting the algae and easy-to-extract oils are then retrievable. Trials completed in the designated ponds at CU have shown that brine shrimp, which feed on micro algae, can produce up to 500 gallons of biodiesel per acre per year with little environmental waste.

“The brine shrimp can eat the algae and convert it into a consistent, high quality protein and oil,” Brune said. “Then, we separate the proteins from the oils and have what was unreachable at one point in time.” And because the brine shrimp’s biomass is a light oil that can be easily made into biodiesel, Brune said the final decision will be up to the masses on whether or not these oils will be the next option for consumers battling the fuel market. “The only issue is that the biomass in a brine shrimp oil is actually more valuable than fuel,” he said. “Done on a low volume, it would not make sense. It would make more sense to combine the uses for animal feeds, additives in human food and fuel.”

“Because of that, it’s going to be a matter of scale. If that’s done, then we’ll completely saturate the food and feed markets and roll the material over into fuels. That’s a priority here.”

David Brune
email : debrune [at] clemson [dot] edu

Plankton to Provide Clean New Oil
BY Tito Drago  /  Aug 4 2006

A system for producing energy from marine algae, to replace fossil fuels and reduce pollution, has been developed by Spanish researchers and will be operational in late 2007, according to its backers. Bernard Stroiazzo-Mougin, president of Biofuel Systems SL (BFS), the Spanish company developing the project, told IPS that “the system will produce massive amounts of biopetroleum from phytoplankton, in a limited space and at a very moderate cost.” On pointing out that biodiesel is already being produced in other countries, the executive explained that the photo-bioreactor to be produced by his company is not the same thing.

BFS, with the support of the University of Alicante, “has designed a totally new system for producing biopetroleum – not biodiesel – by means of an energy converter,” he explained. The new fuel will have all the advantages of petroleum, including the possibility of extracting the usual oil derivatives, “but without its disadvantages, because it will not contribute to CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions, but will in fact reduce them. It will not emit SO2 (sulphur dioxide) and there will be hardly any toxic by-products.”

The raw material for the new fuel is phytoplankton – tiny oceanic plants – that are photoautotrophic, depending only on light and CO2 for their food. Among them are diatoms, a group of unicellular algae, also found in fresh water on land masses, and on moist ground. Phytoplankton produces 98 percent of the oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere. According to Stroiazzo-Mougin, BFS’s system will produce 400 times more oil than any other source of biofuel.

For example, he said, “a surface area of 52,000 square kilometres can yield 95 million barrels of biopetroleum per day, in other words an amount equivalent to the entire world production of crude oil at present, and at a considerably lower price.” The system, he added, will ensure a permanent, inexhaustible source of energy, which also uses up excess CO2, thus helping to curb the greenhouse effect and global warming, of which CO2 is one of the main causes. In order to replace 40 percent of the world’s present consumption of petroleum with biodiesel from plant sources, the area of land currently under cultivation would have to be multiplied by three, which is “totally impossible and counterproductive for the global economy,” Stroiazzo-Mougin said.

BFS’s new fuel will be similar to the fossil petroleum that was formed “millions of years ago under immense pressure and temperature and in the context of great seismic and volcanic activity, starting from the same plant elements that we will be using now (mainly phytoplankton),” he explained. It was “biodegradation of certain plant organic compounds (fatty acids and hydrocarbons) that gave rise to petroleum, and our system will be similar to that process,” the president of BFS added.

With respect to the surface areas needed to produce biofuels, he indicated that soya produces 50 cubic metres per square kilometre per year, colza (rape seed) produces 100 to 140 cubic metres, mustard yields 130 and palm oil 610 cubic metres, while algae produce 10,000 to 20,000 cubic metres of biofuel per square kilometre per year.

BFS is also planning to develop technology to increase production of algae per hectare, before completing construction of its first factory, to be located on Spain’s Mediterranean coast. Production will occur in a closed circuit including vats on land, although there are plans to develop processors offshore. Asked whether BFS will be offering the formula and processing system to other countries, whether they will forge alliances with other companies, or sell the patent, or whether it will all be free, Stroiazzo-Mougin replied that “all these aspects are being carefully studied, from the point of view of the commercial structure of the company.”

“Because of the importance of the system, these are aspects that must be analysed in depth, and we do not have an answer as yet,” he said. Talking about the initiative, the coordinator of the non-governmental organisation Ecologists in Action, Luis González Reyes, told IPS that the situation “with regard to climate change is extremely problematic, and we need to buy time to move towards societies that consume much less energy, and where energy consumption is environmentally friendly.”

With regard to the BFS project in particular, “I am not fully aware of the details,” said the activist. “The CO2 emission rate for the whole system should be evaluated – that is to say, the difference between the amount of CO2 fixed by the algae and the amount released later on during extraction, processing and fuel burning. The possible release of other toxic substances during burning must also be investigated,” he said.

In any case, the environmentalist said, “what’s important, as well as lowering energy consumption, is that new options should be sought and investigated, as BFS and the University of Alicante seem to be doing.” Stroiazzo-Mougin emphasised that the process would markedly lower CO2 emissions and that no other toxic substances would be released, as explained by the chemists and marine biologists who participated in the research project.


Macro-algae (seaweeds) are cultivated at sea, mainly by simply tying them to anchored floating lines. Seaweeds do not require soil, and are already provided with all the water they need, a major advantage over land production of biofuels since water is the most limiting factor for most agricultural expansion, especially with climate change.

One concern is that harvesting massive amounts of naturally occurring seaweed for bioenergy could have comparable effects on atmospheric carbon dioxide and habitat loss or fragmentation as large-scale deforestation. But cultivation is a different matter. In Costa Rica and Japan, seaweed farming has been re-established to produce energy. It can quickly yield large amounts of carbon-neutral biomass, which can be burnt to generate electricity. High-value compounds — including some for other biofuels — can be extracted beforehand.

We have calculated that less than three per cent of the world’s oceans — that’s about 20 per cent of the land area currently used in agriculture — would be needed to fully substitute for fossil fuels. A small fraction of that sea area would be enough to fully substitute for biofuel production on land.

As with land-produced biofuels, the contribution to carbon dioxide reduction would come from cutting net carbon dioxide additions via equivalent decreases in fossil fuel combustion. This happens because biofuels — fuels derived from recent photosynthesis — are basically carbon neutral because all carbon released by burning has recently been taken from the atmosphere. In contrast, fossil fuels come from ancient photosynthesis, thus the carbon released by burning had been stored for ages and thus represents a net addition into the atmosphere.

The main input needed for the large-scale farming this would require is nutrients — because large quantities of them will be removed at harvest. Common agricultural fertilisation — costly and energy consuming — could add large amounts of nutrients to the oceans, with unknown results.

But there is a great and grossly misused nutritional source on hand: domestic wastewaters or the product after their treatment. Growing large seaweed fields for energy using nutrients from wastewater could be an economically-sound use for the millions of tonnes of untreated wastewater dumped daily into our seas worldwide — and the seaweed helps clean it up in the process.

This idea has been tested successfully using human wastewater in experiments at US institutions, including the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution.

As with agriculture, considering that seaweed production is economical for food and other products, it follows that at least some of the options should also be economical for biofuels and bioenergy. However, the analogy with agriculture does not stop there, and a careless farming of the seas could be as damaging as careless agriculture.

But the greatest spin-off from switching biofuels production to the oceans would be the return of land to food production, making food and nutrition more easily available to the world’s poor.

{Ricardo Radulovich is director of the Sea Gardens Project at the University of Costa Rica, which is funded by the World Bank.}

Ricardo Radulovich
email : ricardo.radulovich [at] maricultura [dot] net

“As land on which to cultivate such crops is limited, researchers are looking to the sea for alternative fuel resources. In March, Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology, the Mitsubishi Research Institute, and several companies announced a project to develop bioethanol from seaweed. The plan is to cultivate Sargasso seaweed in an area covering 3,860 square miles in the Sea of Japan. This will be harvested and dissolved into ethanol aboard ships, which will carry the biofuel to a tanker. The process is expected to yield 5 billion gallons of bioethanol in 3-5 years.”

Invention: Biofuel from the oceans
BY Justin Mullins  /  21 January 2009

Almost all commercially produced liquid biofuels come from either sugary crops like sugar beet or cane, or starchy ones like potatoes or corn. But every acre used to cultivate those crops uses one that could grow food – potentially causing food shortages and pushing up prices. Using woody material instead of crops could sidestep this to some extent by using biomass from more unproductive land. And producing biofuels from freshwater algae cultivated in outdoor ponds or tanks could also use land unsuitable for agriculture. But neither approach has been made commercially available.

Now a group at the Korea Institute of Technology in South Korea has developed a way to use marine algae, or seaweed, to produce bioethanol and avoid taking up land altogether. The group says seaweed has a number of advantages over land-based biomass. It grows much faster, allowing up to six harvests per year; unlike trees and plants, it does not contain lignin and so requires no pre-treatment before it can be turned into fuel; and it absorbs up to seven times as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as wood.

The group’s patent suggests treating all sizes of algae – from large kelp to single-celled spirulina – with an enzyme to break them into simple sugars, which can then be fermented into ethanol. The resulting seaweed biofuel is cheaper and simpler to produce than crop or wood-based fuels, and will have no effect on the price of food, says the group.









Algae have gotten short shrift in the decade or so since the Clinton administration axed its research funding at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. But could these tiny, ubiquitous plants, which come in a rainbow of colors and varieties, get us off of foreign oil some day? “One of the big challenges — price, price, price,” said Michael Webber, a professor at the University of Texas. Right now, he said, algae could make fuel for around $10 a gallon, whereas the objective is to get the price down to $1.

The University of Texas is home to what is probably the world’s largest algae collection, with close to 3,000 different strains. Many are little green or red plumes in tubes; others sit in a liquid nitrogen deep-freeze — so cold that if you were to stick a finger in there for a few seconds, it might get lopped off if you banged it against something, according to Jerry Brand, the collection’s director.

Algae — whose predecessors helped make oil tens of millions of years ago — are already used in vitamins and other nutritional supplements. But the price is too high and the scale too small to meet the nation’s energy needs. “The trick is to transform what we know about algae already into these better prices and larger scales for our energy. That’s just starting,” said Mr. Webber. Land- and water-use impacts will also require further study. A number of start-ups are trying to commercialize algae for fuels, as my colleagues Clifford Krauss and Matthew Wald have reported.

Algae could be better positioned as a fuel than ethanol because their lifecycle carbon footprint — the energy and emissions required to grow them — seems likely to be lower, since algae grow so easily. Another advantage is that biodiesel derived from algae can usually be transported in pipes, unlike ethanol which often must be trucked.

Mr. Webber argued that Texas was well positioned to work on algae because it had three key ingredients in abundance: carbon-dioxide (Texas is the nation’s larger emitter — ironically an advantage here); sunlight; and brackish or saline water. Algae biofuels plants could potentially be located near waste-water treatment facilities, cleaning up the wastewater while also providing fuel, said Mr. Webber. The industry is still in the early stages, but interest is picking up. One sign of the times: the Department of Energy is hosting a workshop this week to discuss how to accelerate algae research.

Michael Webber
email : webber [at] mail.utexas [dot] edu

Jerry Brand
email : jbrand [at] mail.utexas [dot] edu

Super-biofuel cooked up by bacterial brewers
BY Colin Barras  /  08 December 2008

Bacteria have been genetically rewired to produce “non-natural” alcohols that would make ideal biofuel. In a new study, researchers show that it is possible to push bacterial metabolism beyond its natural limits in the search for cheap ways to produce useful chemicals. It is another example of how synthetic biology is helping to redefine life. Living cells have already been engineered to metabolise unusual sugars, and James Liao’s team at the University of California, Los Angeles, has now engineered bacteria to convert standard sugars into unusually long-chained alcohols.

‘Promiscuous’ enzymes
Bacteria such as Escherichia coli – a bug commonly linked to food poisoning outbreaks – naturally convert sugar into alcohol, but those alcohols tend to be short-chain molecules. Long-chain alcohols, each containing more than six carbon atoms, are more energy dense – packing more power into a smaller space – and hence make better fuels. They are also easier to isolate than short-chain alcohols because they are less soluble in water. So Liao’s team looked closely at the metabolism of E. coli to see if it could be redesigned to produce these longer chains.

Enzymes in the bacterium encourage one particular keto acid – a precursor to an amino acid – to undergo an “elongation cycle”, increasing its carbon content. The researchers reasoned that those enzymes might be “promiscuous” enough to elongate a different keto acid. The product could then be converted to a six-carbon alcohol using two more enzymes – one borrowed from another bacterium and another from the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which is commonly used in baking and brewing.

Tricky process
So the researchers engineered E. coli to over-express all of these enzymes, and tests confirmed that it could then convert glucose into the target six-carbon alcohol, known as 3-methyl-1-pentanol. Production levels were low, however. When fed 20 grams of glucose, these bacteria produced just 6.5 milligrams of the target alcohol. To improve that figure and reduce the quantity of unwanted by-products, Liao’s team had to engineer the two foreign enzymes. That enabled the bacteria to produce 384 milligrams of fuel from the same dose of sugar.

Optimising the process is tricky, because this is a non-natural metabolic pathway, says Liao. But he thinks that further research will improve on the initial success. “This work shows that one can take a synthetic biology approach – integrating efforts in metabolic engineering and protein engineering – to construct novel biosynthetic pathways,” says Jim Collins at Boston University, who was not involved in the study. Liao’s work will open the door for engineering microbes to produce many novel chemicals and materials, he adds.

Journal reference: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0807157106, in press)
BY Kechun Zhanga, Michael Sawayab, David Eisenbergb, James Liaoa

Nature uses a limited set of metabolites to perform all of the biochemical reactions. To increase the metabolic capabilities of biological systems, we have expanded the natural metabolic network, using a nonnatural metabolic engineering approach. The branched-chain amino acid pathways are extended to produce abiotic longer chain keto acids and alcohols by engineering the chain elongation activity of 2-isopropylmalate synthase and altering the substrate specificity of downstream enzymes through rational protein design. When introduced into Escherichia coli, this nonnatural biosynthetic pathway produces various long-chain alcohols with carbon number ranging from 5 to 8. In particular, we demonstrate the feasibility of this approach by optimizing the biosynthesis of the 6-carbon alcohol, (S)-3-methyl-1-pentanol. This work demonstrates an approach to build artificial metabolism beyond the natural metabolic network. Nonnatural metabolites such as long chain alcohols are now included in the metabolite family of living systems.

James Liaoa
email : liaoj [at] seas.ucla [dot] edu

Montana researcher finds diesel-producing fungus
BY Susanne Retka Schill  /  Nov. 12, 2008

Gary Strobel has dubbed his discovery myco-diesel — a hydrocarbon-producing fungus he found growing in a tree in a Patagonian forest. The endophytic fungus, Gliocladium roseum has been shown to produce many of the same hydrocarbons found in diesel, growing on cellulosic material.

Strobel, a professor in the plant sciences and plant pathology department at Montana State University, explained that many organisms produce the shortest chain hydrocarbon, methane, and a number of organisms make longer-chain hydrocarbons that become increasing wax-like as the carbon chains get longer. However, in an extensive search of the literature, no other organism has been identified that produces as many short-chain hydrocarbons as Gliocladium roseum.

“How long it will take to make it practical to use is anybody’s guess,” Strobel said. “My son is doing the genetic profile and genetic sequencing. Perhaps these genes could be moved into other organisms like yeast or E coli that grow faster.” His son, Scott Strobel, is chair of Yale University’s Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry.

Strobel’s paper detailing his discovery was published in the November issue of Microbiology. After a week of numerous phone calls following the publication of the paper, Gary Strobel is off to the rain forests of Borneo to look for more interesting specimens to test. Shortly after that trip, he will return to Patagonia. In his work, he has identified a number of potentially useful organisms that produce antibiotics, anti-fungal agents and other compounds. “Here I am 70 years old and still tromping around,” Strobel said. “I want to teach people in tropical countries how to do this so the pressure builds to save native forests.”

Gary Strobel
email : uplgs [at] montana [dot] edu

Scott Strobel
email : scott.strobel [at] yale [dot] edu

Tree fungus could provide green transport fuel
BY Alok Jha  /  4 November 2008

A tree fungus could provide green fuel that can be pumped directly into tanks, scientists say. The organism, found in the Patagonian rainforest, naturally produces a mixture of chemicals that is remarkably similar to diesel. “This is the only organism that has ever been shown to produce such an important combination of fuel substances,” said Gary Strobel, a plant scientist from Montana State University who led the work. “We were totally surprised to learn that it was making a plethora of hydrocarbons.”

In principle, biofuels are attractive replacements for liquid fossil fuels used in transport that generate greenhouse gases. The European Union has set biofuel targets of 5.75% by 2010 and 10% by 2020. But critics say current biofuels scarcely reduce greenhouse gas emissions and cause food price rises and deforestation. Producing biofuels sustainably is now a target and this latest work has been greeted by experts as an encouraging step.

The fungus, called Gliocladium roseum and discovered growing inside the ulmo tree (Eucryphia cordifolia) in northern Patagonia, produces a range of long-chain hydrocarbon molecules that are virtually identical to the fuel-grade compounds in existing fossil fuels. Details of the concoction, which Strobel calls “mycodiesel”, will be published in the November issue of the journal Microbiology. “The results were totally unexpected and very exciting and almost every hair on my arms stood on end,” said Strobel.

Many simple organisms, such as algae, are already known to make chemicals that are similar to the long-chain hydrocarbons present in transport fuel but, according to Strobel, none produce the explosive hydrocarbons with the high energy density of those in mycodiesel. Strobel said that the chemical mixture produced by his fungus could be used in a modern diesel engine without any modification.

Another advantage of the G. roseum fungus is its ability to eat up cellulose. This is a compound that, along with lignin, makes up the cell walls in plants and is indigestible by most animals. As such, it makes up much of the organic waste currently discarded, such as stalks and sawdust. Converting this plant waste into useful fuels is a major goal for the biofuel industry, which currently uses food crops such as corn and has been blamed for high food prices. Normally, cellulosic materials are treated with enzymes that first convert it to sugar, with microbes then used to ferment the sugar into ethanol fuel.

In contrast, G. roseum consumes cellulose directly to produce mycodiesel. “Although the fungus makes less mycodiesel when it feeds on cellulose compared to sugars, new developments in fermentation technology and genetic manipulation could help improve the yield,” said Strobel. “In fact, the genes of the fungus are just as useful as the fungus itself in the development of new biofuels.”

“Fungi are very important but we often overlook these organisms,” Tariq Butt, a fungus expert at Swansea University, said: “This is the first time that a fungus has been shown to produce hydrocarbons that could potentially be exploited as a source of fuel in the future. Concept-wise, the discovery and its potential applications are fantastic. However, more research is needed, as well as a pilot study to determine the costs and benefits. Even so, another potential supply of renewable fuel allows us to diversify our energy sources and is certainly an exciting discovery.”

John Loughhead, executive director of the UK Energy Research Centre, also welcomed the discovery but noted it is at its earliest stage of development. “This appears another encouraging discovery that natural processes are more capable of producing materials of real value to mankind than we had previously known. It’s another piece of evidence that there is real potential to adapt such processes to provide energy sources that can help reduce our need for, and dependence on, fossil fuels.”

The next stage for Strobel’s work will be to refine the extraction of mycodiesel from the fungus. This requires more laboratory work to identify the most efficient ways to grow the organism and, perhaps, genetic modification of the fungus to improve yields. If successful, Strobel’s technology will then need to be tested in a large-scale demonstration plant to solve any problems in scaling up to to commercial production.

Strobel also said that his discovery raises questions about how fossil fuels were made in the first place. “The accepted theory is that crude oil, which is used to make diesel, is formed from the remains of dead plants and animals that have been exposed to heat and pressure for millions of years. [But] if fungi like this are producing mycodiesel all over the rainforest, they may have contributed to the formation of fossil fuels.”

Fear, Greed, and Crisis Management:
A Neuroscientific Perspective
BY Andrew W. Lo  /  January 9, 2009

The alleged fraud perpetrated by Bernard Madoff is a timely and powerful microcosm of the current economic crisis, and it underscores the origin of all financial bubbles and busts: fear and greed. Using techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging, neuroscientists have documented the fact that monetary gain stimulates the same reward circuitry as cocaine — in both cases, dopamine is released into the nucleus accumbens. Similarly, the threat of financial loss activates the same fight-or-flight circuitry as physical attacks, releasing adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream, which results in elevated heart rate, blood pressure, and alertness.

These reactions are hardwired into human physiology, and while some of us are able to overcome our biology through education, experience, or genetic good luck, the vast majority of the human population is driven by these “animal spirits” that John Maynard Keynes identified over 70 years ago.

From this neuroscientific perspective, it is not surprising that there have been 17 banking-related national crises around the globe since 1974, the majority of which were preceded by periods of rising real-estate and stock prices, large capital inflows, and financial liberalization. Extended periods of prosperity act as an anesthetic in the human brain, lulling investors, business leaders, and policymakers into a state of complacency, a drug-induced stupor that causes us to take risks that we know we should avoid.

In the case of Madoff, seasoned investors were apparently sucked into the alleged fraud despite their better judgment because they found his returns too tempting to pass up. In the case of subprime mortgages, homeowners who knew they could not afford certain homes proceeded nonetheless, because the prospects of living large and benefiting from home-price appreciation were too tempting to pass up. And investors in mortgage-backed securities, who knew that the AAA ratings were too optimistic given the riskiness of the underlying collateral, purchased these securities anyway because they found the promised yields and past returns too tempting to pass up.

If we add to these temptations a period of financial gain that anesthetizes the general population — including C.E.O.’s, chief risk officers, investors, and regulators — it is easy to see how tulip bulbs, internet stocks, gold, real estate, and fraudulent hedge funds could develop into bubbles. Such gains are unsustainable, and once the losses start mounting, our fear circuitry kicks in and panic ensues, a flight-to-safety leading to a market crash. This is where we are today.

Like hurricanes, financial crises are a force of nature that cannot be legislated away, but we can greatly reduce the damage they do with proper preparation.

Because the most potent form of fear is fear of the unknown, the most effective way to combat the current crisis is with transparency and education. In the short run, one way to achieve transparency is for our president-elect to convene a “crisis summit” once in office, in which all the major stakeholders involved in this crisis, and their most knowledgeable subordinates, are invited to an undisclosed location for an intensive week-long conference.

During this meeting, detailed information about exposures to “toxic assets,” concentrations of risky counterparty relationships, and other systemic weaknesses will be provided on a confidential basis to regulators and policymakers, and various courses of action can be proposed and debated in real time. Afterward, a redacted summary of this meeting should be provided to the public by the president, along with a specific plan for addressing the major issues identified during the conference. This process would go a long way toward calming the public’s fears and restoring the trust and confidence that are essential to normal economic activity.

In the long run, more transparency into the “shadow banking” system; more education for investors, policymakers, and business leaders; and more behaviorally oriented regulation will allow us to weather any type of financial crisis. Regulation enables us to restrain our behavior during periods when we know we will misbehave; it is most useful during periods of collective fear or greed and should be designed accordingly. Corporate governance should also be revisited from this perspective; if we truly value naysayers during periods of corporate excess, then we should institute management changes to protect and reward their independence.

If “crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” as some have argued, then we have a short window of opportunity — before economic recovery begins to weaken our resolve — to reform our regulatory infrastructure for the better. The fact that time heals all wounds may be good for our mental health, but it may not help maintain our economic wealth.

Andrew Lo
email : alo [at] mit [dot] edu

Brian Knutson
email : knutson [at] psych.stanford [dot] edu

Sex, drugs, money: The pleasure principle
Theory of ‘neurofinance’ draws doubts on Wall St.
BY Adam Levy  /  February 2, 2006

Palo Alto, California: Late at night, in a basement laboratory at Stanford University, Brian Knutson was sending his students through a high-power imaging machine called an fMRI. Deep inside each volunteer’s head, electrical currents danced through a bundle of neurons about the size and shape of a peanut. Blood was rushing to the brain’s pleasure center as the students executed mock stock and bond trades. On Knutson’s screen, this region of the brain, the core of human desire, flashed canary yellow.

The pleasure of orgasm, the high from cocaine, the rush of buying Google at $450 a share – the same neural network governs all three, Knutson, a professor of neuroscience and psychology, concluded. What’s more, our primal pleasure circuits can, and often do, override our seat of reason, the brain’s frontal cortex, the professor said. In other words, stocks, like sex, sometimes drive us crazy.

That is something those in the world of finance need to know, according to Andrew Lo, a professor of finance and investment at the Sloan School of Management, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who thinks conventional financial analysis fails to take into account human behavior. “Finance and economic research has hit a wall,” said Lo, who runs AlphaSimplex Group, a hedge fund firm based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “We can’t answer any more questions by running another regression analysis. Now, we need to get inside the brain to understand why people make decisions.”

Still, Knutson said he knew how heretical his findings were. Wall Street is dedicated to the principle that when it comes to money, logic prevails, that intellect matters in investing. The idea is enshrined in the economic theory of rational expectations, for which Robert Lucas was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 1995. Lucas, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, maintains that people make economic choices based on all the information available to them and learn from their mistakes. As a result, their expectations about the future – from the price of Citigroup stock next week to the earnings of General Motors next quarter – are, on average, accurate.

Or so the theory goes. In practice, of course, investors do foolish things all the time. Some gamble away fortunes on money-losing investments, doubling down when logic tells them to fold, or letting winnings ride when the rational person would cash out.

Others seem to have an uncanny knack for knowing when to buy and sell. In the 1970s, Richard Dennis parlayed an initial stake of several thousand dollars into a $200 million fortune trading commodities in the Chicago futures pits. In the 1980s, the hedge fund icon Paul Tudor Jones made $80 million by betting against U.S. stocks just before the market crashed. In the 1990s, the billionaire investor George Soros, the man who beat the Bank of England, made $1 billion in an afternoon by shorting the British pound.

The question that keeps nagging Knutson is this: Why do some traders get rich while others walk away losers? The answer, he said, may lie somewhere in the 96,000 kilometers, or 60,000 miles, of neural wiring inside our brains. The results of the Stanford study, conducted in 2004 and published in September’s issue of Neuron magazine, have caused a stir among the small group of neuroscientists and psychologists who are mapping the human brain in hopes of understanding investor behavior.

This controversial field, called neurofinance, may represent the next great frontier on Wall Street, said Daniel Kahneman, the 2002 Nobel laureate in Economic Science for his pioneering work in behavioral finance, which fuses classical economic theory and studies of human psychology. “The brain scientists are the wave of the future in the financial world,” Kahneman said. “If you seek to maximize understanding, whether you’re in academia or in the investment community, you’d better pay very serious attention to them.”

To proponents like Kahneman, the potential of neurofinance seems virtually limitless. One day, brain science may help money managers spot shifts in investor sentiment, said David Darst, chief investment strategist for the individual investor group at Morgan Stanley. Armed with brain scans, psychotherapists may be able to hone traders’ natural impulses of fear and greed.

Neuroscientists may even develop psychoactive drugs, or neuroceuticals, that make people better, more-profitable traders, Knutson and other psychologists say. Look at Prozac. In the space of a few years, Prozac and other drugs have not only revolutionized the treatment of depression but also profoundly changed the way we view the mind.

People recognize that chemistry drives their brains, moods and behavior – and that chemistry can change them. Similar drugs, ones that improve a trader’s decision making by 20 percent to 30 percent, may be just a few years away, said Zack Lynch, managing director of NeuroInsights, a consulting firm based in San Francisco that tracks the $100 billion neurotechnology industry. If these neuroceuticals work, they could rock Wall Street. “The whole investment community will be scrambling to get these things,” Lynch said.

So far, the hopes and claims of neurofinance have far outpaced its science. Few investment professionals have even heard of the field. Many who have dismiss it as hokum. “It’s the latest malarkey,” said Richard Michaud, president of New Frontier Advisors, based in Boston. Michaud, who has a doctorate in mathematics from Boston University, said neurofinance and its forerunner, behavioral finance, have no place on Wall Street.

“I find these so-called disciplines to be more of a marketing tool, a way of taking an ages-old market valuation problem and calling it something space-age,” Michaud said. “I doubt it will be fruitful.” Knutson’s response: Just wait. “Investors want to beat the market and become better traders,” he said. “The first step is to know how the machinery works. The applications to exploit the machinery will soon follow.”

For Wall Street, brain science eventually could mean big money, said Darst of Morgan Stanley. Securities firms spend millions of dollars annually researching companies and crunching numbers in an attempt to predict the financial future. “Meanwhile, we spend peanuts on human psychology,” said Darst, author of “The Complete Bond Book: A Guide to All Types of Fixed-Income Securities.” “We have to take account of the deep atavistic and visceral traits and instincts that are triggering the buying and selling of securities.”

Knutson’s Stanford study caused a buzz in September at the third annual conference of the Society for Neuroeconomics, held at the Kiawah Island Golf Resort in South Carolina. The three-day event drew 115 people, mostly from academia. The sole Wall Streeter was Arnold Wood from Martingale Asset Management in Boston, who said he was confident neurofinance would catch on.

Food Dance Gets New Life When Bees Get Cocaine
BY Pam Belluck  /  January 6, 2009

Buzz has a whole new meaning now that scientists are giving bees cocaine. To learn more about the biochemistry of addiction, scientists in Australia dropped liquefied freebase cocaine on bees’ backs, so it entered the circulatory system and brain. The scientists found that bees react much like humans do: cocaine alters their judgment, stimulates their behavior and makes them exaggeratedly enthusiastic about things that might not otherwise excite them.

What’s more, bees exhibit withdrawal symptoms. When a coked-up bee has to stop cold turkey, its score on a standard test of bee performance (learning to associate an odor with sugary syrup) plummets. “What we have in the bee is a wonderfully simple system to see how brains react to a drug of abuse,” said Andrew B. Barron, a senior lecturer at Macquarie University in Australia and a co-leader in the bees-on-cocaine studies. “It may be that when we know that, we’ll be able to stop a brain reacting to a drug of abuse, and then we may be able to discover new ways to prevent abuse in humans.”

The research, published in The Journal of Experimental Biology, advances the knowledge of reward systems in insects, and aims to “use the honeybee as a model to study the molecular basis of addiction,” said Gene E. Robinson, director of the neuroscience program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a co-author with Dr. Barron, and Ryszard Maleszka and Paul G. Helliwell at Australian National University.

The researchers looked at honeybees whose job is finding food — flying to flowers, discovering nectar, and if their discovery is important enough, doing a waggle dance on a special “dance floor” to help hive mates learn the location. “Many times they don’t dance,” Professor Robinson said. “They only dance if the food is of sufficient quality and if they assess the colony needs the food.”

On cocaine the bees “danced more frequently and more vigorously for the same quality food,” Dr. Barron said. “They were about twice as likely to dance” as undrugged bees, and they circled “about 25 percent faster.” The bees did not dance at the wrong time or place. Cocaine only made them more excited about the food they found. That’s like “when a human takes cocaine at a low dose,” Dr. Barron said. “They find many stimuli, but particularly, rewarding stimuli, to be more rewarding than they actually are.”

Now, scientists are studying whether bees begin to crave cocaine and need more for the same effect, like humans. The testing occurred in Australia, and, Dr. Barron said, “my dean got extremely twitchy about holding cocaine on campus. It’s in a safe bolted to a concrete floor within a locked cupboard in a locked room in a locked building with a combination code not known even to me. A technician from the ethics department has to walk across campus to supervise the release of the cocaine.”

That, Dr. Barron said, for a bee-size supply of “one gram, which has lasted me two years. One gram, a human would go through in one night. I’m not like the local drug lord.”

Dancing Honeybee Using Vector Calculus to Communicate


BY Kathryn Knight  /  December 26, 2008

Since its discovery in the 18th century, cocaine has been a scourge of western society. Strongly stimulating human reward centres in low doses, cocaine is extremely addictive and can be fatal in high doses. But this potent compound did not evolve to ensnare humans in addiction. Andrew Barron from Macquarie University, Australia, explains that cocaine is a powerful insect neurotoxin, protecting coca bushes from munching insects without rewarding them. Knowing that foraging honey bees are strongly motivated by rewards (they dance in response to the discovery of a rewarding nectar or pollen supply) and that this behaviour is controlled by similar mechanisms to the ones that leave humans vulnerable to cocaine addiction, Barron and Gene Robinson from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign wondered whether bees may be vulnerable to cocaine’s allure at the right dose. Teaming up with Ryszard Maleszka at the Australian National University, Barron set about testing how honey bees respond to cocaine (p. 163).

Setting up his hives on a farm just outside Canberra, Barron trained the insects to visit a feeder stocked with a sugar solution. Then he gently applied a tiny drop of cocaine solution to the insect’s back, and waited to see how enthusiastically the foraging insects danced when returning to the hive. Amazingly, low doses of the drug stimulated the insects to dance extremely vigorously. They behaved as if the sucrose solution was of a much higher quality than it really was. The cocaine seemed to be hitting the insects’ reward centres, but were they really responding to the drug like humans or was the drug stimulating some other aspect of the insects’ behaviour to look as if they were becoming addicted?

Working with a team of undergraduate students, Barron tested whether cocaine stimulated the insects’ locomotion centres by monitoring their movements after a dose of the drug. The insects behaved normally, so the drug probably doesn’t affect their movements. However, when Paul Helliwell tested the bees’ sensitivity to sugar solutions, the drugged bees responded more strongly than the undrugged insects, so cocaine was increasing their sugar sensitivity. But was it only increasing their sensitivity to sugar, or increasing their response to all rewards? Barron offered the drugged insects pollen to see if cocaine increased their sensitivity to other floral rewards and found that the foragers were equally overenthusiastic, dancing as if the pollen quality was much better than it really was.

Finally Barron and Helliwell wondered whether bees that had been on cocaine for a few days had become dependent and went into withdrawal when the drug was withheld. Testing the insects’ ability to learn to distinguish between lemon and vanilla scents, they found that the bees were fine so long as their cocaine supply was maintained. But as soon as the drug was withdrawn the bees had difficulty learning the task, just like humans going into withdrawal.

Barron is confident that honey bees are as susceptible to cocaine’s allure as humans, and is keen to find out more about the drug’s effects. He hopes to identify the neural pathways that it targets to find out more about the mechanisms involved in human addiction and to find out whether the drug has as devastating an effect on honey bee society as it does on human society.

Andrew Barron
email : andrew.barron [at] [dot] au

Gene Robinson
email : generobi [at] uiuc [dot] edu

Effects of cocaine on honey bee dance behaviour
BY Andrew B. Barron, Ryszard Maleszka, Paul G. Helliwell, and Gene E.
Robinson  /  22 November 2008
“The role of cocaine as an addictive drug of abuse in human society is hard to reconcile with its ecological role as a natural insecticide and plant-protective compound, preventing herbivory of coca plants (Erythroxylum spp.). This paradox is often explained by proposing a fundamental difference in mammalian and invertebrate responses to cocaine, but here we show effects of cocaine on honey bees (Apis mellifera L.) that parallel human responses. Forager honey bees perform symbolic dances to advertise the location and value of floral resources to their nest mates. Treatment with a low dose of cocaine increased the likelihood and rate of bees dancing after foraging but did not otherwise increase locomotor activity. This is consistent with cocaine causing forager bees to overestimate the value of the floral resources they collected. Further, cessation of chronic cocaine treatment caused a withdrawal-like response. These similarities likely occur because in both insects and mammals the biogenic amine neuromodulator systems disrupted by cocaine perform similar roles as modulators of reward and motor systems. Given these analogous responses to cocaine in insects and mammals, we propose an alternative solution to the paradox of cocaine reinforcement. Ecologically, cocaine is an effective plant defence compound via disruption of herbivore motor control but, because the neurochemical systems targeted by cocaine also modulate reward processing, the reinforcing properties of cocaine occur as a `side effect’.”


Town where cocaine is the only currency
Guerima, a remote Colombian settlement, wants its Marxist rebels back.
With the national army deployed in a stranglehold around the town,
there is nobody to traffic the town’s only commodity – drugs.
BY Jeremy McDermott  /  15 Jun 2008

More than 1,000 people live in Guerima, carved out of the Amazonian rainforest. Its clearings are filled with coca bushes, the basis for cocaine. This was once the heartland of the 16th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), the Marxist guerrilla movement that has fought in Colombia’s jungles for the past 44 years. But now the troops of the 58th Counter-Guerrilla Battalion patrol the dirt streets.

Their presence has stirred deep resentment, revealing the complexities of Colombia’s war against Left-wing rebels and drug lords. Countless ordinary people depend on the coca trade. “We are sitting on a mountain of coca and a series of Farc ‘IOUs’ “, said one local. “We need the rebels back to pay the debts and buy the coca, otherwise the town will die.”

No money has reached Guerima for months and transactions are conducted in coca, with one gram enough to buy a soft drink.

Major Edgar Gomez, who commands the troops, knows the community feels under siege. He also knows that most locals have friends or family among the rebels. But the major is also aware that his presence in Guerima is hitting the guerrillas’ finances. The rebels here once earned £10 million a month from cocaine. Now they will be lucky to get £1 million.

But the local people would prefer a return to the days when their fate was in the hands of the Farc. Tomas Medina, the local guerrilla commander, was seen as a Robin Hood-style hero, maintaining the drug economy and imposing law and order. “Before the army came there was no crime,” said one man. “Now the soldiers steal from us. Two girls have been raped. “This would not have happened before and if it did the criminals would have been punished, perhaps shot.”

There was no confirmation of the man’s claims and Major Gomez said that winning over the locals was more important than driving out the rebels. “I know these people live on coca,” he said. “The government has to offer them a viable alternative and we are just the first presence of the state. “Healthcare, education and economic investment must follow.”


Cocaine users are destroying the rainforest – at 4 square metres  gram
BY Sandra Laville  /  19 November 2008

Four square metres of rainforest are destroyed for every gram of cocaine snorted in the UK, a conference of senior police officers as told yesterday.

Francisco Santos Calderón, the vice-president of Colombia, appealed to British users of the class A drug to consider the impact on the environment. He said that while the green agenda would not persuade addicts to give up, the middle-class social user who drove a hybrid car and was concerned about the environment might not take the drug if they knew its impact. Santos said 300,000 hectares of rainforest were destroyed each year in Colombia to clear land for coca plant cultivation, predominantly controlled by illegal groups, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as Farc. Officers were told cocaine and heroin use cost the British economy around £15bn a year in health and crime bills.

Santos outlined to the Association of Chief Police Officers how lives were lost in the illegal cocaine trade in Colombia. He said landmines that were used to protect crops and processing labs killed almost 900 civilians this year. Farc and other groups funded by narcotics production were also involved in kidnapping. The Colombian-French politician Ingrid Betancourt was held for more than six years before her release earlier this year, and Santos himself was kidnapped and held by a cocaine gang for 18 months in the 1990s. He told the Belfast conference: “If you snort a gram of cocaine, you are destroying four square metres of rainforest and that rainforest is not just Colombian – it belongs to all of us who live on this planet, so we should all be worried about it. Not only that, the money that you use to buy the cocaine goes into the hands of Farc, of illegal groups that plant mines, that kidnap, that kill, that use terrorism to protect their business.”

Santos said many middle-class Britons who used cocaine were unaware of its environmental impact. “For somebody who drives a hybrid, who recycles, who is worried about global warming – to tell him that that night of partying will destroy 4m square of rainforest might lead him to make another decision.” Santos said Europe was experiencing a boom in cocaine use among more affluent people that was comparable with that seen in the USA 25 years ago. Everyone, he said, had a duty to change their behaviour to halt a rise in demand that was destroying his country. “We call it shared responsibility, We can’t do it on our own. We need everybody’s action; police here, police in Colombia, the authorities in both countries and the consumers too. If there is no consumption, there will be no production.

“There is a sense of frustration, because here drug use is seen as a personal choice and to some extent cocaine is seen as the champagne of drugs which causes no effect and is a victimless crime. It is not victimless.” Bill Hughes, the director general of the Serious and Organised Crime Agency, told the conference that the UK was a very attractive market for drug traffickers. “There is still a lot of disposable income; the risk compared to the US if you are caught is felt to be much less,” he said.

The £15bn cost to the economy reduced the amount of money available for schools, teachers and police officers. He said traffickers moved their drugs from South America to west Africa, and then to the EU and Britain, often operating through insecure countries with poor law enforcement. Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands were major staging posts on the trafficking routes and much of the synthetic drug market was supplied from the Netherlands. Hughes said the proceeds of crime were undermining or corrupting governments globally, with the trade worth £4bn-£6.6bn in the UK.

The World; Where a Little Coca Is as Good as Gold
BY Juan Forero  /  July 8, 2001

The Drug Center, the only pharmacy in the stiflingly hot jungle town of Camelias, deep in southern Colombia, looks ordinary, with wide glass counters and shelves stacked high with medicines. Then the customer pays the bill. The customer produces one of the clear plastic bags in which people here carry around coca paste. The pharmacist, Socrates Solis, scoops out a bit of the paste, weighs it on a digital scale and gives back change — the excess he had ladled out.

Welcome to the Caguan River valley, a swath of jungle towns and coca fields in far-flung Caqueta province, a part of Colombia with no government presence, only guerrillas. The economy is built on coca production, and coca paste has become a main currency. In the pharmacy, for example, everything is priced in grams. Expensive antibiotics retail for 45 grams, worth roughly $36; a bottle of aspirin costs a little more than a gram, or $1; medical exams are given to prostitutes for 12 grams, or $10.

”I was speechless when people would drop by the pharmacy and pay for the doctor’s bills or their medicines with coca instead of money,” Mr. Solis, 35, told the photographer Carlos Villalon when he visited the town. ”The first three months I worked here we collected six and a half kilos of base.”

In this part of Colombia, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia run things, patrolling roads, punishing law breakers, even building bridges over creek beds. Perhaps most controversially, the rebels regulate and tax a thriving trade in coca leaves and coca paste. Traffickers buy the paste, process it into cocaine and ship it by the ton to quench the United States’ insatiable appetite for the drug. It is a business that President Andrés Pastrana’s government says fortifies the rebel army and helps fuel Colombia’s brutal civil conflict.

But in a dozen towns in the region, coca paste is seen in much less nefarious terms. Paper money is in short supply, since conventional businesses are few. Instead, everything revolves around coca, as evidenced by thousands of acres of coca fields and the coca-processing laboratories in the jungles.

It is not unusual for people to be paid for their work in coca. They, in turn, pay for necessities with the paste, which is soft and powdery like flour. Need a pair of shoes for the little one? El Combate general store in Sante Fe takes coca paste. Groceries at Los Helechos in the village of Peñas Coloradas? Just drop the powder on the scale, the merchant says with a smile.

It feels quite normal for Wilber Rozas, 34, of Peãs Coloradas to spend 1.08 grams (worth 90 cents), for a large glass of juice at the Peñas Juicery. Or for villagers at the annual festival in Santa Fe to lug bags of coca paste to buy clothing from traveling salesmen or to bet in the cock fights. ”I would like to always take cash, but if I do not receive coca base I might as well shut down my restaurant,” said Selmira Vasquez, who owns the Buenos Aires restaurant in Peñas Coloradas.

As a currency, the coca paste is as good as gold. When traffickers arrive every few weeks to buy coca paste, they pay with a wad of bills — and soon money is flowing again. The merchants have cash. So do workers. The value of the paste, however, is unpredictable. ”The price of paste can go up or down, like having money in the bank,” explained Ms. Vasquez. ”When the dealers show up, the prices could be lower or higher than when I bought, so it is like gambling.”

The region’s bartering system does not mean the inhabitants themselves are cocaine addicts or gang members. The rebels keep the peace by prohibiting drug consumption. Those who violate the ban end up on road-paving or bridge-building duty.

The guerrillas also forbid those most susceptible to drug use — the young, single men who have come from across Colombia to pick coca leaves — to be paid in coca paste. They receive coupons they can cash once the traffickers arrive with money. ”That is the way it works in the Caguan river region,” explained Jose Sosias, 28, a villager. ”We are a coca culture. Our money, some times during the year, is coca base but we just use it as currency. No one here consumes the drug.”

“…massive deposits of subsea methane are bubbling to the surface as
the Arctic region becomes warmer and its ice retreats…”

Exclusive: The methane time bomb
BY Steve Connor  /  23 September 2008

The first evidence that millions of tons of a greenhouse gas 20 times
more potent than carbon dioxide is being released into the atmosphere
from beneath the Arctic seabed has been discovered by scientists.

The Independent has been passed details of preliminary findings
suggesting that massive deposits of sub-sea methane are bubbling to
the surface as the Arctic region becomes warmer and its ice retreats.

Underground stores of methane are important because scientists believe
their sudden release has in the past been responsible for rapid
increases in global temperatures, dramatic changes to the climate, and
even the mass extinction of species. Scientists aboard a research ship
that has sailed the entire length of Russia’s northern coast have
discovered intense concentrations of methane – sometimes at up to 100
times background levels – over several areas covering thousands of
square miles of the Siberian continental shelf.

In the past few days, the researchers have seen areas of sea foaming
with gas bubbling up through “methane chimneys” rising from the sea
floor. They believe that the sub-sea layer of permafrost, which has
acted like a “lid” to prevent the gas from escaping, has melted away
to allow methane to rise from underground deposits formed before the
last ice age.

They have warned that this is likely to be linked with the rapid
warming that the region has experienced in recent years.

Methane is about 20 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than
carbon dioxide and many scientists fear that its release could
accelerate global warming in a giant positive feedback where more
atmospheric methane causes higher temperatures, leading to further
permafrost melting and the release of yet more methane.

The amount of methane stored beneath the Arctic is calculated to be
greater than the total amount of carbon locked up in global coal
reserves so there is intense interest in the stability of these
deposits as the region warms at a faster rate than other places on

Orjan Gustafsson of Stockholm University in Sweden, one of the leaders
of the expedition, described the scale of the methane emissions in an
email exchange sent from the Russian research ship Jacob Smirnitskyi.

“We had a hectic finishing of the sampling programme yesterday and
this past night,” said Dr Gustafsson. “An extensive area of intense
methane release was found. At earlier sites we had found elevated
levels of dissolved methane. Yesterday, for the first time, we
documented a field where the release was so intense that the methane
did not have time to dissolve into the seawater but was rising as
methane bubbles to the sea surface. These ‘methane chimneys’ were
documented on echo sounder and with seismic [instruments].”

At some locations, methane concentrations reached 100 times background
levels. These anomalies have been seen in the East Siberian Sea and
the Laptev Sea, covering several tens of thousands of square
kilometres, amounting to millions of tons of methane, said Dr
Gustafsson. “This may be of the same magnitude as presently estimated
from the global ocean,” he said. “Nobody knows how many more such
areas exist on the extensive East Siberian continental shelves.

“The conventional thought has been that the permafrost ‘lid’ on the
sub-sea sediments on the Siberian shelf should cap and hold the
massive reservoirs of shallow methane deposits in place. The growing
evidence for release of methane in this inaccessible region may
suggest that the permafrost lid is starting to get perforated and thus
leak methane… The permafrost now has small holes. We have found
elevated levels of methane above the water surface and even more in
the water just below. It is obvious that the source is the seabed.”

The preliminary findings of the International Siberian Shelf Study
2008, being prepared for publication by the American Geophysical
Union, are being overseen by Igor Semiletov of the Far-Eastern branch
of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Since 1994, he has led about 10
expeditions in the Laptev Sea but during the 1990s he did not detect
any elevated levels of methane. However, since 2003 he reported a
rising number of methane “hotspots”, which have now been confirmed
using more sensitive instruments on board the Jacob Smirnitskyi.

Dr Semiletov has suggested several possible reasons why methane is now
being released from the Arctic, including the rising volume of
relatively warmer water being discharged from Siberia’s rivers due to
the melting of the permafrost on the land.

The Arctic region as a whole has seen a 4C rise in average
temperatures over recent decades and a dramatic decline in the area of
the Arctic Ocean covered by summer sea ice. Many scientists fear that
the loss of sea ice could accelerate the warming trend because open
ocean soaks up more heat from the sun than the reflective surface of
an ice-covered sea.

Örjan Gustafsson
email : orjan.gustafsson [at] itm [dot] su [dot] se

Igor Semiletov
email : igorsmat [at] iarc [dot] uaf [dot] edu

The ultimate gas leak that scientists dreaded
BY Steve Connor  /  23 September 2008

There are two significant facts about methane in terms of global
warming. It is about 20 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than
carbon dioxide, and there are massive stores of it locked away under
the permafrost of the northern hemisphere.

Methane is produced naturally by the decay of water-logged vegetation.
Over thousands of years it has accumulated under the ground at
northern latitudes and has effectively been taken out of circulation
by the permafrost acting as an impermeable lid.

What makes methane so potentially dangerous is that its release from
under the now-leaking permafrost could accelerate global warming,
which in turn would speed the melting of the permafrost and release
even more methane. Scientists believe this has happened in the
geological past with devastating consequences for the global climate
and life.

Like carbon dioxide, average methane concentrations in the atmosphere
have risen significantly since the Industrial Revolution, increasing
from about 700 parts per billion (ppb) in 1800 to about 1,790ppb
today. Much of this increase is down to human activities, notably oil
and gas exploration, and agriculture.

For the past 10 years, average global methane concentrations have
levelled out, probably because of improvements in Russian gas
exploration. However, for the first time in more than a decade,
scientists recorded an increase in global methane in 2007 and are set
to measure a further increase this year.

Scientists at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
(NOAA) have identified the Arctic as a potentially important new
source of methane as temperatures in the region increase; it is one of
the most rapidly warming places on Earth. “We’re on the look-out for
the first sign of a methane release from thawing Arctic permafrost.
It’s too soon to tell whether last year’s spike in emissions includes
the start of such a trend,” said NOAA’s methane expert Ed Dlugokencky
last April.

The good news about methane is that it is quickly degraded in the
environment, with an average lifetime of about 12 years, compared to
the 100 years of carbon dioxide. The bad news is that we do not
understand how the methane stores in the north will behave as the
region experiences more extensive thaws. The fear is that the amounts
released will make global warming far worse than expected.

Graham Westbrook
email : g.k.westbrook [at] bham [dot] ac [dot] uk

Hundreds of methane ‘plumes’ discovered
BY Steve Connor  /  25 September 2008

British scientists have discovered hundreds more methane “plumes”
bubbling up from the Arctic seabed, in an area to the west of the
Norwegian island of Svalbard. It is the second time in a week that
scientists have reported methane emissions from the Arctic.

Methane is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse
gas and the latest findings from two separate teams of scientists
suggest it is being released in significant amounts from within the
Arctic Circle.

On Tuesday, The Independent revealed that scientists on board a
Russian research ship had detected vast quantities of methane breaking
through the melting permafrost under the seabed of the shallow
continental shelf off the Siberian coast.

Yesterday, researchers on board the British research ship the James
Clark Ross said they had counted about 250 methane plumes bubbling
from the seabed in an area of about 30 square miles in water less than
400 metres (1,300 feet) deep off the west coast of Svalbard. They have
also discovered a set of deeper plumes at depths of about 1,200 metres
at a second site near by. Analysis of sediments and seawater has
confirmed the rising gas is methane, said Professor Graham Westbrook
of Birmingham University, the study’s principal investigator.

“The discovery of this system is important as its presence provides
evidence that methane, which is a greenhouse gas, has been released in
this climactically sensitive region since the last ice age,” Professor
Westbrook said. An analysis of sediments taken from the seabed show
that the gas is coming from methane hydrates – ice-like crystals where
molecules of the gas are captured in “cages” made of water molecules,
which become unstable as water pressures fall or temperatures rise.

Professor Westbrook said the area surveyed off the west coast of
Svalbard was very different to the area being studied by the Russian
vessel because the water was much deeper and does not have a layer of
permafrost sealing the methane under the seabed.

It is likely that methane emissions off Svalbard have been continuous
for about 15,000 years – since the last ice age – but as yet no one
knows whether recent climactic shifts in the Arctic have begun to
accelerate them to a point where they could in themselves exacerbate
climate change, he said.

“We were very excited when we found these plumes because it was the
first evidence there was an active gas system in this part of the
world,” Professor Westbrook said after disembarking from the ship,
which arrived back in Britain yesterday. “Now we know it’s there we
know we have to very seriously consider its effect.”

Antarctic sea ice increases despite warming  /  12 September 2008

The amount of sea ice around Antarctica has grown in recent Septembers
in what could be an unusual side-effect of global warming, experts
say. In the southern hemisphere winter, when emperor penguins huddle
together against the biting cold, ice on the sea around Antarctica has
been increasing since the late 1970s, perhaps because climate change
means shifts in winds, sea currents or snowfall.

At the other end of the planet, Arctic sea ice is now close to
matching a September 2007 record low at the tail end of the northern
summer, in a threat to the hunting lifestyles of indigenous peoples
and creatures such as polar bears. “The Antarctic wintertime ice
extent increased…at a rate of 0.6% per decade” from 1979 to 2006,
says Donald Cavalieri, a senior research scientist at the NASA Goddard
Space Flight Center in Maryland. At 19 million square kilometres, it
is still slightly below records from the early 1970s of 20 million, he
says. Since 1979 however, the average year-round ice extent has risen

Sceptics’ delight
Some climate sceptics point to the differing trends at the poles as a
sign that worries about climate change are exaggerated, but experts
say they can explain the development. “What’s happening is not
unexpected…Climate modellers predicted a long time ago that the
Arctic would warm fastest and the Antarctic would be stable for a long
time,” says Ted Maksym, a sea ice specialist at the British Antarctic

The UN Climate Panel says it is at least 90% sure that people are
stoking global warming – mainly by burning fossil fuels. But it says
each region will react differently. A key difference is that Arctic
ice floats on an ocean and is warmed by shifting currents and winds
from the south. By contrast, Antarctica is an isolated continent
bigger than the US that creates its own deep freeze. “The air
temperature in Antarctica has increased very little compared to the
Arctic,” says Ola Johannessen, director of the Nansen Environmental
and Remote Sensing Center in Bergen, Norway. “The reason is you have a
huge ocean surrounding the land.” Cavalieri says some computer models
indicate a reduction in the amount of heat coming up from the ocean
around Antarctica as one possible explanation for growing ice.

Hot air
Another theory was that warmer air absorbs more moisture and means
more snow and rainfall, he says. That could mean more fresh water at
the sea surface around Antarctica – fresh water freezes at a higher
temperature than salt water. “There has been a strengthening of the
winds that circumnavigate the Antarctic,” says Maksym. That might be
linked to a thinning of the ozone layer high above the continent,
blamed in turn on human use of chemicals used in refrigerants.

In some places, stronger winds might blow ice out to sea to areas
where ice would not naturally form. Maksym predicted that global
warming would eventually warm the southern oceans, and shrink the sea
ice around Antarctica. “A lot of the modellers are predicting the
turning point to be right about this time,” he says.

Edward Maksym
email : emak [at] bas [dot] ac [dot] uk

From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]

China’s Weathermakers Prep for Olympics
BY Irene Klotz  /  Feb. 1, 2008

China, which is preparing to host the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing,
has taken on a task that would flummox even Hurcules: controlling the
weather. Determined to prevent rain from dampening the spirits — not
to mention the crowds — on opening day ceremonies, the government
plans to seed any threatening clouds with chemicals to dispel, or at
least delay, rainfall.

Though it sounds like a classroom assignment from Hogwarts School of
Witchcraft and Wizardry, weather modification programs have been
around for more than 50 years. California and 10 western states in the
United States regularly lace clouds with various substances to
increase snow and rain, though the practice has not passed full
scientific muster. The problem is there are too many factors that
affect the weather, making naturally occurring phenomena difficult to
separate from man-made triggers.

Not that people haven’t tried. Roscoe Braham, who pioneered weather
modification experiments at the University of Chicago in the 1950s,
always believed it would be possible to change the weather, but years
and years of tests were inconclusive. “It was unfortunate,” Braham
said in an interview with Discovery News from his retirement home in
North Carolina. “There was no strong scientific base for changing the

“The atmosphere and nature are so broad and so big and the best
efforts that man can put forth are really small in that respect,”
added Braham, who now serves as Scholar-in-Residence for North
Carolina State University’s Department of Marine, Earth and
Atmospheric Sciences. “If (proof) exists, we’re looking for a rather
small needle in a huge haystack of hay. You don’t even know what it
looks like, you don’t even know what success would be,” he said.

That’s not to say the techniques were disproved, either. A March 2007
study for the California Energy Commission by the U.S. Bureau of
Reclamation found that cloud-seeding programs statewide produced
300,000 to 400,000 acre-feet of water annually. The water, mostly in
the form of melted snow, benefits agriculture and the state’s
hydroelectric power industry. It also augments recreational and
municipal supplies.

To make or mitigate rain, target clouds are injected with chemicals
such as silver iodide, which has a crystalline structure almost
identical to ice, or with dry ice, which changes the clouds’
structure. Braham recalls watching the transformation take place from
aboard research aircraft. “Dry ice is most effective. You just crush
it up and spew it out. A hole will develop in the cloud,” within about
10 minutes, Braham said. “It’s always mesmerizing to see this change.”

The chemical transforms water droplets, which cause a cloud’s opacity,
into ice crystals. That leaves a clear patch which, over time, fills
in. As for China’s Olympic feat, Braham said it would be nice if the
experiment was run and published prior to the big day so it could be
weighed on its scientific merits. Otherwise, he, for one, would award
the gold medal for weather to Mother Nature.

RAIN MITIGATION,0,39372.story
China plans to halt rain for Olympics
BY Barbara Demick  /  January 31, 2008

BEIJING — It is yet another attempt by man to triumph over nature.
Determined not to let anything spoil their party, organizers of the
2008 Summer Olympics said Wednesday that they will take control over
the most unpredictable element of all — the weather. While China’s
Olympic athletes are getting ready to compete on the fields, its
meteorologists are working the skies, attempting the difficult feat of
making sure it doesn’t rain on the Aug. 8 opening ceremonies. “Our
team is trained. Our preparations are complete,” declared Wang
Jianjie, a spokeswoman from the Beijing Meteorological Bureau,
addressing a news conference at the headquarters of the Beijing
organizing committee.

The Chinese are among the world’s leaders in what is called “weather
modification,” but they have more experience creating rain than
preventing it. In fact, the techniques are virtually the same. Cloud-
seeding is a relatively well-known practice that involves shooting
various substances into clouds, such as silver iodide, salts and dry
ice, that bring on the formation of larger raindrops, triggering a
downpour. But Chinese scientists believe they have perfected a
technique that reduces the size of the raindrops, delaying the rain
until the clouds move on.

The weather modification would be used only on a small area, opening
what would be in effect a meteorological umbrella over the 91,000-seat
Olympic stadium. The $400-million stadium, nicknamed the “bird’s nest”
for its interlacing steel beams, has no roof. “This is really a very
complex process in terms of selecting the place and the time,” said
Wang Yubin, an engineer from the meteorological bureau. “Probably we
will have to decide one day before or very close to the event.” Jeff
Ruffalo, a public relations advisor to the Beijing Olympics, believes
this is a first for the Summer Olympics, which in recent years have
taken place in drier cities — Athens, Sydney, Barcelona.

Summer is the rainy season in Northeast Asia. Originally, the Beijing
Olympics were to open July 25, but meteorologists urged that the date
be pushed back as late as possible. Still, the chances of rain in
Beijing on Aug. 8 are close to 50%. Training with the Olympics in
mind, the meteorologists have been practicing their “rain mitigation”
techniques since 2006. They have had a couple of dry runs, so to speak
— a China-Africa summit and a panda festival in Sichuan province,
among others.

The Chinese have been tinkering with the weather since the late 1950s,
trying to bring rains to the desert terrain of the northern provinces.
The bureau of weather modification was established in the 1980s and is
now believed to be the largest in the world. It has a reserve army of
37,000 people — most of them sort of weekend warriors who are called
to duty during unusual droughts. The bureau has 30 aircraft, 4,000
rocket launchers and 7,000 antiaircraft guns, said Wang Guohe,
director of weather modification for the Chinese Academy of

“We have the largest program in the world with the most people
involved and the most equipment, but it is not really the most
advanced,” Wang said. That honor belongs to the Russians, who he says
used sophisticated cloud-seeding in 1986 to prevent radioactive rain
from the Chernobyl reactor accident from reaching Moscow. Although
many scientists dispute the effectiveness of weather modification,
Wang insists that it has been successful in China on a limited scale.
“If you’re talking about a small rainfall, you can eliminate it,” Wang
said. “But if it’s going to be raining cats and dogs, there’s nothing
man can do about it.”

The People’s Weather  /  BY Tom Scocca

At this summer’s Beijing Olympics, China puts a 50-year experiment to
the test: Officials are betting weather modification can keep the sun
shining on the Games. Despite shaky science, the government is
confident (not for the first time) that man can best nature. Whatever
their chances, there’s plenty at stake—because all that development
and urban renewal won’t look so good beneath a curtain of smog.

One thing worth considering when you tamper with nature is what sort
of nature you’re tampering with. Nature is not kind to the city of
Beijing. China’s capital is arid, nearly a desert, and its natural
weather patterns are fickle and harsh. Winter is marked by howling
Siberian winds; summer, by sweltering monsoon heat. In lieu of
showers, springtime is best known for seasonal dust storms that sweep
down from Central Asia. Fall is parched and gusty too, but the dust
settles down. This basic brutality is overlaid with levels of
pollution like those of England’s Industrial Revolution. Many things
blot out the sunshine, and most have nothing to do with rain: factory
and power plant emissions, construction dust, smoke from stoves
burning scrap wood or pressed coal. There are more than 3 million cars
on the streets—and the count is said to be growing by 400,000 vehicles
annually. It is not unusual to check the AccuWeather international
forecast on the New York Times website and find that while other
cities’ weather is “mostly sunny” or “overcast,” Beijing’s is “smoky.”
In February 2007, authorities finally abandoned a longstanding policy
in which haze was referred to as wu, Mandarin for fog, and just called
it what it is—mai, or haze.

So the government aims to manipulate the city’s weather. This is a
matter of plain bureaucracy, not science fiction. Ren ding sheng tian,
went an old aphorism embraced by Mao Zedong: Man must defeat the
heavens. The People’s Republic has a colorful history of battling
nature with colossal, often ill-starred public-works projects.
Imperial flood-control schemes, for instance, begat today’s Three
Gorges Dam, designed to be the world’s largest hydroelectric station—
and denounced by critics as an environmental disaster. The Weather
Modification Office (WMO) is an arm of the Beijing Meteorological
Bureau, which is the local branch of the Chinese Meteorological
Administration. There are 31 provincial or municipal weather-
modification offices in China. The administration employs 52,998
people by its own count. Beijing’s WMO has sixteen full-time employees
who direct the activities of several dozen part-time weather
modifiers, mostly local farmers. The farmers maintain 21 emplacements
of antiaircraft guns and 26 rocket launchers, which fire munitions
loaded with silver iodide into the clouds. In the winter, when clouds
are lower, the modifiers burn chemical charges in special stoves. A
small squadron of planes, flown from a military airfield, delivers
silver iodide or dry ice into the clouds from above. In the clouds,
the silver iodide mingles with tiny droplets of water—leading, in
theory, to the formation of ice particles, which melt into heavier
drops and then fall as rain.

The operations of the weather modifiers lend themselves to a kind of
science folklore. Beijingers and foreigners in the city harbor pet
theories about signs that the government may be tampering with a
particular day’s weather—they include unusually fat raindrops, rain
from clear skies, or remarkably well-timed breaks of sunshine. Such
divination both over- and underestimates the Beijing Meteorological
Bureau’s activity. “Normally, if conditions permit, yes, we would
modify,” says Zhang Qiang, the deputy director of theWMO. But
miraculous transformations have not been the goal—at least until now.

This year, much of Zhang’s time is taken up with a new obligation.
Beijing is preparing for the coming Summer Olympics with an all-
encompassing effort involving new subway lines, trophy architectural
projects, and an urban renewal campaign that has cut huge swaths
through what’s considered the old city. Over it all hovers the problem
of the weather—which Chinese officials have been manipulating for 50
years now—and what to do about it. The Beijing Games are meant to mark
China’s emergence on the world stage as a 21st-century global
superpower. China would like that stage to be clean and dry.

The Olympics will take place during the brief but emphatic wet season;
on average, more than half the city’s annual precipitation falls in
July and August. The National Stadium, a tangled-looking lattice of
monumental steelwork known as the “Bird’s Nest,” is open to the skies.
The original design, by groundbreaking Swiss architecture firm Herzog
& de Meuron, included a retractable roof that was eventually scrapped
in a cost-cutting maneuver.

So the weather administration is responsible for standing between the
Olympics and the real possibility of an untimely downpour. History
suggests the natural chance of rain during the opening and closing
ceremonies is 50 percent, Beijing bureau deputy chief engineer Wang
Yubin announced at a press conference about weather and the Olympics
last year. Officials are hoping the same technology that’s meant to
bring more rain can also make it rain less or make the rain fall
somewhere else. Wang was accompanied by Zhang and by representatives
of the Academy of Meteorological Sciences, the Research Institute of
Urban Meteorology, and the Central Meteorological Observatory. They
discussed the interagency work of the Beijing Olympic Meteorological
Services Center, a temporary weather authority that will blanket the
city with real-time mini-forecasts. “We find that our measure is quite
effective if it deals with rainfall in a limited area,” Wang
explained. If there is widespread or heavy rain, he warned, “at
present we cannot reduce this rainfall to the minimum, to be frank.”

The Beijing rainmaking command center occupies a large seventh-floor
room in the bureau’s compound, near the Jingmi Canal on the west side
of the city. I visited it on a late-spring day last year. One wall was
taken up by windows that could have been called panoramic, had they
faced out on something other than a Beijing afternoon.

If weather is what you see and feel when you go outside, then the
majority of Beijing’s weather is manmade, with or without the help of
the WMO. On this particular day, the city looked as if someone had
shaken out a giant sack of instant concrete over it. The Fragrant
Hills, less than five miles to the west, were invisible from outside
the bureau.

The murky light could have passed, to the untrained eye, for a sign
that a shower was imminent, but the weather modifiers weren’t
stirring. In a bank of ten computer screens across the room from the
windows, only two were on—one showing a radar display, another showing
graphs of cloud temperature and water content. A voice broadcast over
speakers delivered a forecast: overcast again tomorrow, lasting
possibly until the next day.

Near the doorway of the weather-modification room was a relief model
of the municipality in tans and greens with white tags marking the
bureau facilities. The city proper is dead flat, resting on an inland
offshoot of the Huabei coastal plain. Around it is a deep bowl formed
by overlapping mountain ranges—the Taihang to the west and the Yan to
the north and northwest. Many of the tags, marking firing stations,
were scattered on the high ground in Beijing’s rural districts.
A row of past and present cloud-seeding rockets stood on the floor
beside the relief map, including an olive, waist-high RYI-6300, the
model currently in use. A 37-millimeter silver-iodide antiaircraft
shell completed the set. The Beijing bureau buys its equipment from
State-Owned Factory No. 556 in Wuhai City, Inner Mongolia, a former
military plant that now makes weather-control gear and industrial
blasting fuses.

Over the past decade, Beijing has sought to improve its air quality by
moving heavy industry out of town to neighboring Hebei Province and
the port city of Tianjin. Even the venerable Shougang Iron Works, a
mascot of China’s industrial might, is being uprooted for the
Olympics. But when the wind blows off the ocean, from the south and
the east, it carries the factory-choked air of Hebei and Tianjin up
the coastal plain, until the mountains funnel it to a halt over the
capital. The city’s Environmental Protection Bureau keeps an annual
tally of “blue-sky days” on which air quality falls into the two
lowest classes of its five-level pollution scale (at level five,
residents are warned to stay indoors and avoid exercise). Each year
brings a new, higher quota of blue-sky days for the city to meet; in
2007, the target was 245 days. The city logged 246, thanks to December
30 and 31—a pair of sunny days that followed a two-week stretch of
filthy ones. International media outlets also noted that the
government had scored an improbably large number of days that just
cleared the cutoff for “blue-sky” status.

Technically, summer is less polluted than other seasons, in part
because the lower portion of the atmosphere known as the planetary
boundary layer is higher, fewer people are burning coal, and the
government doesn’t include ozone—the primary component of smog—in its
pollution index. Regardless, Olympic officials are making contingency
plans for rescheduling events if certain days are too dirty. Athletes
worried about particulates in their lungs may descend on the city
wearing filter masks, taking them off for public appearances and
competition only. Last year, the International Olympic Committee
president, Jacques Rogge, expressed his concern to CNN about
scheduling “endurance sports like the cycling race, where you have to
compete for six hours. These are examples of competitions that might
be postponed or delayed to another day.”
Weather modification has a vexed and winding history, but China’s
position is straightforward: It is the world’s number one nation in
the field, however debated the field itself may be. The country spends
up to $90 million annually on weather-manipulation projects, and the
Meteorological Law of the People’s Republic of China directs
“governments at or above the county level” to “enhance their
leadership over weather modification” and “carry out work in this
field.” According to Yao Zhanyu, a weather-modification expert and
professor at the Academy of Meteorological Sciences, climate control
was first proposed by weather bureau chief Tu Changwang in 1956. Mao
gave it his blessing: “Manmade rain is very important,” he commented.
“I hope that meteorological professionals put more effort into it.” By
the summer of 1958, the first rain-seeding flights took place in Jilin
and Gansu provinces. This August—when the Olympics’ opening ceremonies
take place—a more modest public celebration in Jilin province will
honor 50 years of weather modification by the People’s Republic.

China’s meteorologists, though, weren’t the first to try cloud
seeding. The General Electric Laboratory launched the first field
experiments in 1946. The original principle established by the GE
experiments was sound, and momentum for research grew so much that at
one point in the ’70s, the United States spent $20 million annually on
projects. Forty years ago, it was at least as plausible to trigger a
downpour as to send a man to the moon, according to Hugh Willoughby, a
meteorology professor at Florida International University who took
part in major rain-making and hurricane-taming studies during the ’70s
and early ’80s. But if American scientists want to pursue weather
modification today, he says, “The burden of proof is really on them.”
Presently the country spends only $500,000 on the science.

GE’s original starting point was that seeding can cause ice to form in
cold clouds, or droplets to condense in warm ones. Yet cloud physics,
it turns out, is considerably more complex than rocket science: The
moon is an object of known size, moving predictably through space at a
distance of about 240,000 miles. To put a man on the moon, he is put
in a spaceship on a rocket and shot closer and closer to the target. A
cloud seeder, by contrast, is never shooting at the same target twice.
Not only is today’s cloud unlike yesterday’s, it is unlike the cloud
it was five minutes ago. Its top is unlike its bottom, and the two may
be changing places. Liquid water in it may be colder than neighboring
ice. Rain falling inside it may never reach the ground.

Six decades after its enthusiastic beginnings, weather modification
has been granted few successes by American scientists. In mountainous
areas, seeding seems to be able to moderately increase snowfall in the
winter. Insurance companies paid fewer hail-damage claims over the
years in counties where private anti-hail contractors were at work.
Recent studies also suggest that seeding clouds in the tropics with
salt seems to produce more rain, though later and farther away than
current theories can explain. According to a 2003 National Academy of
Sciences Board of Atmospheric Sciences and Climate report, progress in
weather modification “is not possible without a concerted and
sustained effort at understanding basic processes in the atmosphere.”
In their own studies, Chinese scientists have concluded that their
cloud seeding increases rainfall by 10 to 25 percent. They have seeded
clouds not only to offset drought and fill reservoirs but even to
fight forest fires. Talks have been underway with officials in Spain
and Egypt, who are said to be interested in the purchase of
modification instruments, and in 2005 China signed a bilateral
agreement with Cuba to begin operations there. “We’re not that far
ahead of other countries,” the WMO’s Zhang explains. “It’s just
because we’re still working at it continuously, trying to tackle these
problems, that we have results.”

The greatest recent triumph of weather modification in Beijing wasn’t
planned as a weather-control operation at all. In fall 2006, Beijing
hosted a pan-African summit. It was preceded by a rushed
beautification job in which workers hung floating red lanterns and
photomural billboards along major roadways and filled in medians with
new sod and saplings. To prevent congestion, the city’s traffic
authorities banned most government vehicles from the roads, cutting
traffic by a quarter. An obliging west wind swept away traces of the
old gridlock just before the summit. The sky turned a gorgeous
autumnal blue—a Hudson Valley sky, not a Huabei Plain one. The azure
stayed all week. It was beyond anything the Meteorological Bureau had
ever accomplished.

In August 2007, the city tried a repeat performance. While the
Meteorological Services Center utilized its rain-fighting artillery,
Beijing tried an even more drastic traffic cutback—alternately
allowing only odd- or even-numbered license plates on the road. But
what was announced as a two-week trial only ran for four days because
of a bureaucratic miscommunication. The haze remained.

The rain-prevention trial ending that same month was also
inconclusive. The technique employed in that effort was a variant on
the usual plan to make more rain, which is related to the technique
for stopping hail. Both depend on the supply of particles in the air
to serve as nuclei for rain formation. In a brewing hailstorm, Zhang
says, think of the available droplets of supercooled water as mantou—
steamed bread rolls—and the supply of ice-precipitating nuclei as
monks. “If you give 1,000 mantou to 100 monks, each of them is going
to burst to death,” Zhang said.  (Mantou are notoriously filling.) In
hail-formation terms, the overloaded monks would come crashing out of
the clouds as dangerously large hailstones. But by firing silver-
iodide shells into clouds, you’re adding more monks to the scene. “So
in the end,” Zhang said, “each monk gets two or three mantou.” The
resulting ice pellets should be small enough to melt on their way
down, arriving as raindrops. The metaphor leaves out a few things—hail
also requires powerful thermal updrafts to serve as a buffet line that
allows for feeding the monks—but it captures the basic strategy. Thus,
if you continue to reduce each monk’s portion of mantou, eventually no
one gets enough to eat, and the droplets stay in the cloud.

The concentration of nuclei in the air, with and without seeding, is
one of the great outstanding questions of weather-modification
science. The silver iodide monks are beside the point if the mantou
have already been nibbled to bits, and the skies over China are rich
with aerosol particles from dust and pollution. In a paper published
in Science last year, Yao Zhanyu and a team of researchers concluded
that in the mountains near Xi’an, heavy pollution can suppress
rainfall by 30 to 50 percent.

In his office at the Academy of Meteorological Sciences, Yao explained
the strategy for protecting the National Stadium. China had tried rain-
prevention ventures before, Yao said—at the Tiananmen Square
celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the People’s Republic in 1999,
for instance, and at the 10th National Games in Nanjing in 2005—but
the leading practitioner of anti-rain seeding was the former Soviet
Union. Yao, a compact and muscular man with thin-rimmed glasses,
pointed to a floor tile to represent the Olympic grounds. He traced
three semicircles, one inside the next, where the mountains would be.
The majority of summer storms, Yao said, come from the northwest, the
west, or the southwest. Starting at the outermost line, the modifiers
plan to seed approaching storms to encourage rainfall, in the hopes
that they rain themselves out. By the nearest line, the goal will be
instead to overseed the surviving clouds to suppress rain entirely. So
rain seeding and anti-rain seeding “are not two strategies that are
contradictory to each other,” Yao said. “We have to use them both.”

But the theory and technology were no match for last year’s monsoon.
August was marked by powerful downpours and flooding in the city. One
evening that month, I went to a neighborhood restaurant under clear
skies. By the time I finished dinner, it was as if the streets were
being sprayed with a celestial firehose: A row of mature trees had
been downed, cabs crept through water up to their hubcaps, and
pedestrians waded with their pants rolled past their knees.
Thunder was rumbling at the Xinzhuang Village firing station when I
arrived one afternoon last June, riding up a dirt lane in a city
taxicab. Beijing’s whole network of modifiers had been at work earlier
in the week, the WMO said, and the humidity hadn’t budged. The launch
site was on a ridgetop 1,400 feet above sea level in the middle of a
50-acre orchard run by a farmer named Jing Baoguo. An island platform
stood in the middle of an irrigation reservoir, under a striped
canopy, with catwalks leading to and from it. Along the far side of
the enclosure was a grape arbor; on the near side, tomato plants
flanked weather instruments.

The artillery stood off to the right: two antiaircraft guns, their
barrels poking out over the fence top, and a pair of blocky rocket
launchers mounted on single-axle trailers. In front of a large shed
sat a silver-iodide RGY-1 burner, a gleaming barrel-shaped contraption
with three wheels, a conical nose, and a long chimney that looked like
a barbecue smoker. By the side wall of the shed was a white doghouse
with a medium-sized black dog inside.

Jing, a wavy-haired man in earth tone slacks and a pullover, leased
the orchard six years ago, after working as a purchaser in a local
trading organization. After his trees suffered hail damage that year,
the Beijing Meteorological Bureau approached him about becoming a
weather modifier and setting up a station on his land. The Xinzhuang
site is one of four the bureau has added since 2001, with farmers
supplying the property, local government funding construction, and the
bureau supplying the guns and other equipment. The modifiers are paid
50 yuan, or about $7, for every shell fired, which would typically top
out at six on a day like today.

Heavy clouds were blowing overhead and a sprinkle of rain began to
fall. This was a rain-enhancement opportunity. An assistant, wearing a
round straw hat, ducked into the shed and began bringing out rockets,
one by one, and loading them into the nearest launcher. He slid each
one home, lining up the tailfins with slits in the firing tubes. The
launcher held a half-dozen rockets at once.

Jing and his assistant swung the launcher around and cranked it
skyward. Orders for modification begin with an advisory from the
Beijing bureau to its district sub-bureaus, alerting them to a
suitable weather system. The district offices mobilize the local
stations and direct them to fire. Via cell phone, the station got the
final orders: No firing today. Air traffic controllers, the ultimate
authority, had vetoed the operation. “Lots of airplanes circle this
area,” said Jing.

We retreated to the platform in the middle of the irrigation tank,
where Jing had put out apricots and cherries. Rain fell on the canopy,
and Jing poured hot mineral water from a thermos. He had originally
been skeptical of modification, he said, but at least in the case of
hail prevention, “it definitely works.” Pointing to an apricot, Jing
added, “Before the guns were installed, the hail was as big as this.”

The thundershower passed. The rocket launcher was still pointing
upward as I left in my taxi. Between air traffic and the southerly
origins of the storm, the bureau later stated, none of the other
weather-modification stations had been able to fire either. As we
returned to the expressway, though, drops began sprinkling the
windshield and then pelting it. Lightning flashed. Before long, we
were in a downpour again. We rode home through the unassisted rain.


Champion Pulls Out of Olympic Race Due to Pollution
BY Gregory Mone  /  03.10.2008

Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie has announced that he will not race in
the marathon at this year’s Beijing Olympics due to the potential
pollution. Gebrselassie, the world record holder in the event, says he
suffers from exercise-induced asthma, and that the risk to his health
would be too great for him to run that race, though he does plan to
compete in the shorter 10,000 meter event. China has announced
numerous plans to clean the air prior to the Games—the country has
said it will limit traffic in the city, shut down factories and even
attempt to modify the weather with technology. But as we’ve written
before, these local measures might not suffice, as some scientists
have found that much of Beijing’s pollution often comes from far-off
sources. Gebrselassie isn’t the only athlete to protest. Other runners
have expressed concern about the foul air, and officials have
suggested that these longer races may be delayed by a few hours or
longer in the case of intense smog.

Construction Halted Ahead of Games
BY Andrew Jacobs  /  April 15, 2008

BEIJING — City officials laid out an ambitious series of measures on
Monday that will freeze construction projects, slow down steel
production and shut down quarries in and around this capital during
the summer in an attempt to clear the air for the Olympics. Even spray-
painting outdoors will be banned during the weeks before and after
sporting events, which begin here on Aug. 8. Although officials
initially suggested that the city’s wholesale transformation would be
complete long before the opening ceremonies, the announcement
nonetheless represents the most detailed plan yet for how Beijing
might reach its longstanding pledge to stage “green Games” in one of
the world’s most polluted cities. In the past, officials had suggested
that the city’s makeover would be completed well before the Games,
possibly by the end of 2007.

But the two-month construction ban announced Monday will instead begin
on July 20. Government directives will also force coal-burning power
plants to reduce their emissions by 30 percent through most of the
summer. Officials said 19 heavily polluting enterprises, including
steel mills, coke plants and refineries, would be temporarily
mothballed or forced to reduce production. Gas pumps that do not have
vapor-trapping devices will be closed, cement production will stop and
the use of toxic solvents outdoors will be forbidden.

If Beijing’s air remains unacceptably sullied in the days leading up
the Games, officials said, they would take “stringent steps” to curb
polluting industries, although they declined to say what those might
be. “We will do everything possible to honor the promise,” Du
Shaozhong, deputy director of the city’s Environmental Protection
Bureau, told reporters. “Just tell everybody they don’t have to

Some Olympic officials and athletes remain unpersuaded. Although the
government has made notable strides in reducing the brown haze from
coal-burning heaters and stoves, the unabated surge in car ownership
has erased many of those gains. There are about 3.5 million vehicles
choking Beijing’s roadways, with about 1,200 new cars joining the
honking parade each day.

Last August, in a four-day exercise that will probably be repeated
this summer, authorities forced more than half of Beijing’s cars and
trucks off the road. Officials said they would present plans to
restrict traffic later. In recent months, independent scientists who
have sampled Beijing’s air have said levels of ozone and particulate
matter from diesel engines remain five times as high as maximum
standards set by the World Health Organization.

The president of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge,
said a particularly smoggy day could prompt officials to postpone
outdoor endurance events. Mr. Du, the environmental official,
dismissed suggestions that Beijing had failed to substantially reduce
harmful pollution. He said that the number of Blue Sky days, those
with acceptably clean air according to the city’s monitoring system,
has more than doubled since 1998. There were just 100 such days then,
he said, compared with 246 last year. He said levels of nitrogen
dioxide and sulfur dioxide had dropped significantly in recent years.

However, an independent study released in January by an American
environmental consultant, Steven Q. Andrews, found irregularities in
the monitoring system that cast doubt as to how much air quality had
actually improved. The authorities said they had reduced pollution by
forcing local factories to upgrade pollution-control equipment and
compelling about 200 of the most hopelessly noxious ones to shut down
for good. Even on a day when the horizon was notably hazy and the
fumes from idling cars undeniably acrid, Mr. Du urged a roomful of
reporters to tell the public how much better Beijing’s air had become
in recent years. “Please assure all the athletes,” he said.

But even if they find the city’s air cleaner than expected, visitors
may be disappointed by the indoor environment. Earlier in the day,
government officials announced that a proposed smoking ban, which is
to take effect on May 1, had been modified in the face of opposition
by business owners. Smoking will be restricted in hospitals, schools
and stadiums, but it will be permitted in bars and restaurants.

Selling Out? A Defense of Commercial Engagement in China
BY Tom Doctoroff  /  April 23, 2008

After a recent posting in which I argued against an Olympic boycott,
the anti-China blogosphere let out a primal scream, accusing me, and
other expatriates within the China-based business community, of
“coddling dictators” and “selling out to totalitarianism.” One hot-
tempered netizen went so far as to suggest we were “worse than
terrorists,” earning a cheap buck while supporting the whims of an
amoral Communist party, one willing to do anything to maintain power
— from the crushing of domestic dissent to propping up illegitimate
regimes around the globe. The anti-China, anti-business faction is

Guns and Monks: A Public Relations Fiasco

This article will not attempt to justify the recent actions of the
Chinese government. In fact, while no (Han) PRC citizen supports a
“free” Tibet, its recent handling of the Tibetan protests has been
antediluvian and ham handed, a public relations disaster that
embarrasses even Shanghai taxi drivers. But Western observers should
take a deep breathe and ask a simple question: What in heaven’s name
could have motivated such a diplomatic strategic misfire?

There are only three and a half months until the Beijing Olympics. The
entire nation wants nothing more than to impress the world with its
industrial modernity, social progress and international outlook. The
Games have been built up here as a Second Coming, an economic and
cultural inflection point that announces China’s arrival as a new
superpower, shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States, a proud
declaration that the Han worldview is not only legitimate but also
more enduring than any other culture’s value system. At the dawn of a
“Pacific century,” one during which both West and East can each, at
last, hold up half the sky, why on earth would the apparatchiks clash
with sympathy-inspiring monks and then, archaically and hysterically,
blame the whole thing on the machinations of the “splittist” Dalai
Lama, a figure beloved through the world? What were they thinking? How
could they be so, well, irrational?

Tibet and “Unity”: Sacred Ambition

A simple question deserves a simple answer. The government is scared
of chaos. So, too, is the entire population. In Han eyes, stability is
the lynchpin of progress. In the Chinese universe, change is constant
and absolutes, moral or otherwise, do not exist. Man’s inherent state
is precarious but he can move forward if unpredictability is
minimized. As a result, religious, political, and philosophical forces
are geared toward propagating order. Chinese were, and continue to be,
obsessive about balance and predictability. Daoism’s yin and yang
(i.e., feminine versus masculine forces) are an integration of the “ba
gua,” or eight natural elements evenly divided between feminine and
masculine forces that can be combined in only sixty-four pre-set ways.
The lunar calendar is cyclical, always morphing from yin to yang, with
each “animal” corresponding to one of twelve “earthly branches.” Lucky
dates for marriage, auspicious office openings, and astrological
license plates are all structure-obsessed manifestations of a
preordained temporal rotation that must be both understood,
critically, managed.

In this context, the sacred goal of strengthening China’s “unity” is
more than a nationalistic impulse after decades of colonial
degradation and economic humiliation. A cohesive China, void of
secessionist elements, implies no less than the unification of heaven
and earth, harmony that underpins the nation’s continued economic rise
and geo-political ascent. True or not, rational or not, it’s what 100%
of Chinese believe. When chaos erupts, fear strikes the deepest corner
of the Han heart. Disorder presages decline and decay. And, today more
than ever, Chinese are “optimistically anxious,” dazed by country’s
economic miracle yet on the qui vive about the bottom falling out.

Capitalistic Institutions: Civil Society’s Lynchpin

Contrary to the perceptions of some, Western capitalism is not about
maximizing profit at the expense of civil society, rule of law and
human rights. Quite the contrary, it is founded on the assumption that
the individual, not the clan, represents that basic productive unit of
society so his economic — and, by extension, political — interests
must be protected. It is institution-based. Efficient allocation of
capital is lubricated by impartial institutions such as: a) banks that
make lending decisions based on quantified risk and return, b) the
wide available of credit, and c) corporate governance structure that
rewards transparency and long-term shareholder gain. (Chinese
businesses have been traditionally fueled by guanxi, personal
relationships rooted in mutual obligation.)

The rationalism inherent in on-the-ground commercial engagement is
appreciated in China — so, too, is the American system of checks and
balances — for it makes the Chinese feel safe. Sermons about human
rights elicit, at best, yawns and, more often, accusations of cultural
tone deafness. The business community, yes, has a moral obligation
advance the cause of liberty but, to be effective, their arguments
must be couched in terms of “efficiency,” not idealistic abstractions
or dewy pleas for universal brotherhood.

Western Business and Reform

And, lo! Modern capitalism — again, anchored in an assumption that
individual interests must be protected — has already altered China’s
economic, corporate and social landscape. It is the “bridge” on which
the PRC connects to a world that is infinitely dissected but rarely
understood. On a deeper but unarticulated level, the presence of
American and European businesses in China’s midst challenges
traditional assumptions that the outside world — the Western world —
is inherently unfriendly. China’s “dark side” emerges when it feels
threatened. Heels are dug in. Shields are raised. From the robotic
blankness of the sales girl who does not understand the competitive
advantages of her product line to old world factionalism encouraged by
bosses who fear their underlings, insecurity breeds dysfunction. On
the other hand, when the Chinese feel protected, they look up and out,
productively, non-belligerently and non-passive aggressively, eager to
connect with a broader world and bigger opportunity.

As a result, Western business has helped push China to “our side” in
important ways:

Meritocratic Advancement. In a land laden with stultifying basso
profundo propaganda and soul crushing political correctness, foreign
companies have instilled China’s middle class with a new truth:
capability, not connections, leads to professional advancement. JWT,
for example, boasts more than 1,000 mainland staff, with each
receiving formal performance evaluations that determine promotions and
raises; furthermore, 50% of our senior management is local. Western
organizations reward true “leadership” — i.e., the courage to
persuade others to accept a new point of view — and reject mumbling
yes-men. Although most Chinese are still uncomfortable with non-
quantifiable performance benchmarks, a new generation of self-
possessed, innovation-driven, confident MNC-trained leadership is
slowly-but-surely emerging.

Transparent Corporate Governance. As suggested above, the Chinese
revere efficiency. One of the country’s most inspiring characteristics
remains an uncanny ability to dispassionately assess current strengths
and weakness and then, meticulously and incrementally, identify steps
toward a higher plane of performance. In the PRC, the success of
multinational corporations — they beat domestic companies across a
broad swathe of categories from cars (GM) and shampoo (P&G) to
camcorders (Sony) and ice cream parlors (Haagen Dazs) — has persuaded
leaders to acknowledge the linkages between: a) transparent
information flow and stock price gains, b) board structure/shareholder
rights and long-term profit and c) consistent accounting standards and
access to capital. (The central government also recognizes the
dysfunction of old-style shadows and darkness, hence its eagerness to
join the World Trade Organization while subjecting itself to the harsh
glare of membership. Since accession in 2001, the gradual opening of
several sectors, notwithstanding “sensitive” industries such as media
or telecommunications, has impressed many Western observers.)

Is Shanghai’s opaque stock market any more rational than a Las Vegas
gambling binge? Not yet. Are state-owned enterprises still encouraged
to fritter away “excess” profit in the form of Cartier watches and
corporate “team building” trips to Macau? Yes. But, make no mistake:
global accounting companies such as KPMG and Price Waterhouse Coopers
are doing gangbuster business on the mainland, and not only by
policing MNCs. They have penetrated Chinese C-Suites by prying open
books, one ledger at a time. Another example: HSBC’s small and medium
enterprise (SME) client base is exploding; the bank lends RMB to
thousands of start ups that know securing a loan depends on reporting
normalized profit.

It’s the Consumer, Stupid! Consumers have finally begun assert their
rights as buyers, an impulse that barely existed ten years ago.
Ironically, the multinational corporations that first introduced the
concept of “shopper satisfaction” are frequent targets of ire. Procter
& Gamble’s SK-II elicited howls of indignation for “hurting the
feelings of Chinese” because it failed to offer a refund when a
“suspicious” chemical showed up in its skin cream. Nestle’s “arrogant”
handling of “tainted” baby formula, fodder for indignant internet
attacks in chat rooms across the country, made the nation seethe. But,
at long last, the patriarchical Communist party, the self-appointed
protector of national welfare, has been cut by its own double-edged
sword. In 2007, the Shanghai municipal government was forced to cancel
plans to extend a high-speed railway into the downtown area due to
middle class property price concerns. And a scandal which has seen
half of China’s mobile phone users spammed with unwanted text
messages, many from state-owned telcos, has “drawn the ire of the
government which has vowed to fight against offending texters.”

Rome: Not Built in a Day

Am I naïve enough to suggest that Communist China has miraculously
morphed into a society in which the needs of the “little guy” are
always addressed? No. Property rights still do not extend to land
ownership (all real estate is leased). The judiciary is still light
years away from impartiality, with many judges either poorly trained
or still beholden to local power brokers. The banking system, all too
often, is rigged against the interests of the entrepreneur; raising
capital for non-state-owned entities can be an exercise in extreme
frustration. But China is, step by step, evolving into a more rational
and fair environment in which policy makers pragmatically acknowledge
the relationship between civil (and human) rights and sustained
growth. Whether we like to admit it or not, the People Republic is
becoming a quasi-“normal” environment, business and otherwise. It is
only a matter of time before more a modern (albeit not Western)
political structure emerges to address 21st century capitalistic

Many “advanced” Chinese societies — Singapore and, yes, Hong Kong —
still regard strong central authority as a bulwark against disorder.
Therefore, representative democracy, an inalienable right in Western
society, will not take root any time soon in China, a country burdened
with crushing poverty and urgent infrastructural demands, not to
mention a radically-different world view. But Americans and Europeans
who rail against a “red menace” and are blind to the progress that has
been made, help neither the Chinese nor the world.

The road to Rome is long and the Chinese have only just started on
their journey. And we expatriate businessmen (and women) are certainly
not saints; Yahoo’s sell out to the Communist censors reminds us of
our fallibility. Nonetheless, we can be proud of our contribution to a
more prosperous, stable nation and world order.

Chinese Gobi Desert Threatens Beijing

The Chinese Gobi desert threatens to take over China’s capital city of
Beijing. The vast and ever expanding Gobi Desert devours 2,460 square
miles of Chinese soil each year. This is an area roughly the size of
the State of Delaware. Frequent violent sandstorms threaten to
overcome Beijing. Sand dunes now tower just 43 miles from the ancient
capital. In spite of efforts to contain the desert it is relentlessly
marching south at a brisk 12-15 mile per year clip.

Why is Asia’s largest desert growing so quickly? It is because of a
process scientists call desertification. Over population strips the
desert of meager tree, plant, and grass cover. Without sufficient
protection bare sands are quickly spread by the wind. The desert
ecosystem enters a positive feedback stage where each deterioration in
stable conditions accelerates the pace of change.  China’s rapid
economic growth comes at a great price. The fast approaching desert
threatens to encroach upon the Chinese capital city of Beijing before
the Summer Olympics in 2008. The Chinese are trying to stop the
southern spread of the Gobi by constructing a Green Wall. Beijing
officials set aside $8 billion to construct a natural wall of trees
spanning more than 2,000 miles.

However, there is a problem. Trees need water. And air pollution
inhibits precipitation. Researchers from Israel’s Hebrew University of
Jerusalem and the Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences found
that on hazy days, precipitation from the top of Mount Hua in China’s
northwestern Shaanxi province is cut by up to 50%. Rampant air
pollution is one of the terrible prices that China has paid for rapid
economic growth. Consequently, one quarter of China currently finds
itself buried beneath sand. And now climate change threatens to make
the dry region even dryer. China’s immediate need for water remains
paramount. Two out of every three major Chinese cities have less water
than they need. Cities in northeast China have roughly five to seven
years left before they completely run dry.