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Science Problems Requiring Attention
CHAPTER 75 Science and Our New Leader
The election is over and it's a sad time for science. Actually, I'm hoping that my opening sentence turns out to be wrong and that our future president is changing his mind about climate change. Prior to the election, Scientific American did an evaluation of the presidential candidates on various categories related to science. Trump did not fare well. In the category of climate change, which I consider the most important issue affecting the future of our planet and the human race, Clinton was rated 4 on a scale of 5, whereas Trump was rated 0 out of 5. The October 21 issue of Science had a clever cartoon on the cover headlined "Science Lessons for the Next President". The cartoon showed an elephant and a donkey, both wearing safety goggles, at a bench containing flasks and beakers with labels such as Sea-level Rise, Genome Editing, Artificial Intelligence, etc.
Articles in the journal dealt with the science problems faced by past presidents and some of the problems that will face the incoming president ( note, the issue appeared before the election). Past examples dated back to Franklin Roosevelt and the atomic bomb, Kennedy and the moon landing program and Lyndon Johnson for funding it, Nixon and environmental laws and the space shuttle, etc., etc., up to Barack Obama and the Paris (climate) agreement. What are some of the problems that President Trump will have to address? Regarding climate change, an article by Paul Voosen titled "Seas are rising faster than you think" points out that rising seas are already causing tidal flooding in places such as Miami Beach and Hampton Roads, Virginia and that 40 percent of the U.S. population lives near the coast. For various reasons the sea levels along our East Coast are rising at double or, for Virginia, triple the global rate. Obviously, we need more research on how melting ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica will affect the rates of sea level rise in order to decide whether to abandon or try to protect communities and facilities such as roads, military bases, power and sewer plants, etc. After writing this paragraph, I saw a brief mention on one of our TV news programs of one of our New Jersey towns having problems with water from the bay flooding the streets, even with no storm involved.
Coal-burning and other sources of air pollution are major contributors to climate change, with the smog situation in China being of great concern. I happen to have had experience with coal-burning induced smog when I attended graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh. I've mentioned before it being dark at noon and how after taking notes in class the paper would be smudged with black material from the atmosphere over the city of Pittsburgh. The powder blue suit my mother bought to send with me to Pitt got only one wearing before I retired it! With the banning of soft coal and closing of steel mills, the city was as clean as any city the last time I visited there.
But Haagen-Smit was becoming concerned with the increasing deterioration of LA's atmosphere, the smog becoming so bad some days he could actually taste it. He modified his pineapple apparatus and started blowing smog through it, finally ending up with a few ounces of brown sludge which smelled terrible. The article terms the sludge "eau de smog". One of the components of the sludge was ozone, which explained the odor of bleach. But where did the ozone come from? In those days LA had a couple million cars, which released nitrous oxide and unburned hydrocarbons, also released by local oil refineries. Neither of these explained the smog. Haagen-Smit had his ideas and they involved another key ingredient, the light from California sunshine. When he pumped nitrous oxide and hydrocarbons into a chamber exposed to light, out came smog!
It wasn't until the 1970s that research by Haagen-Smit and others finally convinced the federal government to mandate that car makers incorporate emission standards and install catalytic converters to break up the compounds generating the smog. By then, he as a well known activist and he died in 1977. He deserves a lot of credit for the fact that today LA has some 14 million cars but the atmosphere is cleaner than it was back in the 1950s. I've dwelt at some length with this topic because I think it shows the need for good science and scientists working not only on obviously practical problems but also on subjects that may not be of immediate concern.
Back to President Trump, he may have to contend with evolution, as noted in an article in the Science issue by Elizabeth Pennisi. As has become painfully obvious, various bacteria, viruses or other microorganisms have been evolving resistance to our antibiotics and other medicines that had been successful in treating killer diseases. Ebola and Zika viruses are two of the most publicized bad guys but antibiotic-resistant TB and drug-resistant malaria and other diseases are of increasing concern. The possibilities of major epidemics or even global pandemics could require major presidential attention.
I just saw something along this line in an item in the November 11 issue of Science. A fungus, Candida auris, was discovered in South Korea back in 2009 but had not been reported in the United States until a few weeks ago when the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a report on details of seven cases of C. auris found between May 2013 and August 2016. Four of the seven patients have died, although it isn't clear whether the fungus was the killer. In one instance here in New Jersey and another in Illinois, two patients were treated in the same hospital, raising the possibility that the fungus is spreading in hospitals. The article says that hospitals have been alerted to look for the fungus but it takes specialized lab equipment to detect the infection.
This past week the TV program "60 Minutes" had two compelling segments by Lesley Stahl on Alzheimer's and the extended families in Medellin, Colombia whose members sharing a particular genetic trait are certain to develop Alzheimer's early in life and die. A doctor there recognized the significance of this decades ago and finally a major study has been launched, with participation by the NIH here in the U.S. Basically, what is underway is a double blind study in which a cohort of members of this family not sharing the genetic marker for the disease will be compared with a cohort of those who do have the marker and the fates of those receiving a promising drug treatment will be compared with the fates of those not receiving the drug. The drug focuses on elimination of the amyloid plaques found in the brains Alzheimer's victims. Hopefully, if the drug treatment works and the plaques are prevented, those receiving the drug will not get Alzheimer's and live long and happy lives. On the other hand, if the plaques are prevented and the subjects still get Alzheimer's, it will mean the plaques are not the culprit causing the disease.
One problem related to Alzheimer's that will no doubt require presidential attention is how much money to spend on brain-related research, a subject pushed by President Obama. I find estimates that today 4 or 5 million of us have the disease and in another decade that figure will be 7 million or so. For one approaching his 89th birthday this month, I find estimates that 40 to 50 percent of those over 85 have the disease to be very upsetting. Is having trouble remembering names a sign?
Of possible relevance to Alzheimer's and certainly relevant to a host of other fields aside from the medical one, is CRISPR, the revolutionary gene-editing tool that will almost certainly attract presidential attention. Prior to CRISPR, editing a gene was a slow, expensive and imprecise process. Now, CRISPR allows scientists snip out genes, alter them, even add in new genes or mix genes from different species. To show how things have changed, one of my recent issues of the journal Science came with a paste-on ad on the cover for a CRISPR kit I could purchase and set out editing genes. Obviously, I would have no idea how to do this but the fact that such a kit is available demonstrates the impact of CRISPR.
The "60 Minutes" program did not mention CRISPR but it seems obvious that one future approach in the Medellin case would be to use CRISPR to eliminate the early-onset Alzheimer's gene in human embryos carrying the gene. Of course, the whole problem of the ethics of tinkering with genes in embryos to eliminate potential diseases is one that must be considered on a governmental basis. Today, we have all this controversy about Genetically modified organisms, GMOs. And we have the case in Florida of objections to releasing genetically modified mosquitoes to eliminate the carriers of the Zika virus.
Finally, I hope President Trump finds himself a reputable science advisor and that at the end of his term (or terms) he is judged to have been one of our greatest presidents.
Next column on or about January 1, hopefully.