The Clean Power Plan: What’s Water Got To Do With It?

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Written by Paul Reig [Biología 07]. Paul is an Associate with the Water Program and Business Center, and is responsible for guiding the design and development of WRI’s Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas and managing WRI’s corporate engagement on water.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new Clean Power Plan has been heralded as a major step toward a low-carbon economy in the United States. By reducing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, the new policy is designed to promote the development of renewable energy sources nationwide.

When it comes to water and fracturing, it’s all about location and time. Photo by Simon Fraser University/Flickr.

However, the plan’s impact on water resources has been largely overlooked, even though power plants are significant water users across the U.S., accounting for 45 percent of total water withdrawals. The Union of Concerned Scientists reports that, on average, producing the electricity you use in your home results in more freshwater withdrawals than all of your daily water-related tasks, like sprinkling lawns and washing dishes. Where that electricity comes from makes a big difference in how much water is involved, though. Thirsty energy sources like coal can take 20,000 gallons per megawatt hour to 50,000 gallons per megawatt hour, while wind power requires almost no water at all.

Water stress will likely become a more important factor in future energy decisions.By the time the Clean Power Plan is fully implemented in 2030, over half of the contiguous U.S. is likely to be arid or suffer from high or extremely high water stress. Since companies, farms and homes in these areas will already use most of the available water, there will probably be intense competition for any additional withdrawals. Reports of a megadrought coming to the central and southwestern U.S. highlight that region’s vulnerability to growing water scarcity.

So what impact will the Clean Power Plan have on this water-scarce future? It’s hard to know. How states decide to meet their individual emissions targets will affect the nation’s energy mix. Improved energy efficiency would lead power plants to use less water, while adding carbon capture and sequestration technology to coal plants would make them even thirstier than they are now.

Natural gas will probably hold its place in the future U.S. energy mix as a lower-emissions fossil fuel alternative to coal. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) listed the shift of generation from existing coal plants to existing natural gas plants as one compliance option to reduce emissions. The plan itself predicts that natural gas will be the nation’s largest electricity source in 2030.

U.S. natural gas production has risen dramatically over the past decade, largely as a result of hydraulic fracturing, or fracturing. Much of the debate revolves around water issues: fracturing a single well requires between 1.8 million and 6 million gallons of water, while drilling a conventional natural gas well takes only 50,000 to 660,000 gallons. Critics also voice concerns over which contains high quantities of salt, sand and harmful chemicals.

When it comes to water and fracturing, it’s all about location and time. Although fracturing accounts for only one-thousandth of total U.S. water withdrawal, wells are often clustered in a small area. In fact, almost a third of water use in some U.S. counties stems from fracturing. Additionally, wells only require large volumes of water for a few days at the beginning of the fracturing process, so new well development can make a significant impact on water availability in an area. Aqueduct’s water stress projections can lend additional insight into the issue: by 2030, nearly 63 percent of areas in the U.S. where natural gas could be fracked will be arid or suffer from high or extremely high water stress.
These high water stress levels mean that U.S. states need to be careful about where they develop natural gas resources. Fracturing in a water-stressed area will only add to existing competition for water by domestic, industrial and agricultural users. Still, there are ways to lessen the stress. Operators can use non-freshwater sources or recycle wastewater to decrease freshwater use. Alternatively, states can invest in renewable energy like wind and solar photovoltaic power, which require almost no water at all.

The Clean Power Plan is a major step to bring the U.S. closer to a future powered completely by low-emissions energy sources. But as states begin to plan how to meet the new emissions targets, they should keep water in mind. Aqueduct’s water stress projections allow state policymakers to consider current and future water issues before deciding how to reach their emissions goals. With proper implementation, the Clean Power Plan can protect our water as well as our climate for decades to come.

Prior to joining WRI, Paul spent 4 years managing a wide range of watershed restoration projects throughout the US States of Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina. Paul also spent time in Latin America working on environmental and social impact assessments for international energy and mining companies

The genome wars that have shaped us

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

(Written by  By Mikel Zaratiegui, Assistant Professor. Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry. Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey)

 Our genome, and the genomes of all present-day species, shows the scars of a war that has been ravaging them since the origin of life: the fight against parasite genes. This war has shaped us in ways that we are only now beginning to understand.

The concept of a parasite gene may be counterintuitive. After all, aren’t genes the building blocks of all biological systems? But not all genes contribute to the function of the cell. Some genes may act in “selfish” ways, to enhance their own inheritance without regard for the well-being of the organism that harbors them. This is a very ancient way of doing things. In artificial life simulations, where digital replicating “life forms” are left to compete and evolve in a computer, the first novel life strategy to arise is that of the parasites: short programs that take advantage of the more complex “autonomous” programs by latching on to their function. In the case of our chemically defined life, we suspect that molecular parasites probably evolved alongside the very earliest life forms.

As flu season approaches, everyone is familiar with one form of molecular parasites: Viruses. This is probably an extreme form of parasitism, where the parasite hijacks the host organism to replicate new copies of itself, leaving it behind after completing the viral life cycle, exhausted if it’s lucky, dead if it’s not. But all parasites need to be careful not to be too harsh on their host, because if it goes extinct due to an excessive disease burden it’s very likely that the parasite will follow it to the same fate, after losing their replication platform. Successful parasites become attuned to their hosts, maximizing their reproductive success, but making sure they don’t impact the fitness of their hosts so much that it starts to affect their own. Some of our molecular parasites have taken up permanent residence in our genome, and have been with us for millions of years. They have been evolving with us, fighting for their survival, and perhaps even contributing to ours.

Photo: Waterloo Battle

These resident molecular parasites are commonly known as Mobile Elements, or Transposons, because they were discovered due to their unique ability to change their localization in the genome. There are many families of Mobile Elements, reflecting their diverse origins. Some are viruses that have lost their extracellular stage of their life cycle, becoming stuck in the host genome, resigned to be transmitted down generations. Others are descendants from ancestral molecular parasites. Strikingly, some of them are cellular genes that went rogue when they acquired the capacity to move and multiply by using the enzymatic machinery of other Mobile Elements, parasitizing the parasite. Mobile Elements are present in virtually every species, and contribute a large amount of sequence to the genomes of higher eukaryotes; for example, 85% of the maize genome is composed of Mobile Elements. As a consequence, the Transposase family of genes, which mediates the mobility of these parasitic elements, is the most abundant gene class found in the biosphere.

In the human genome, 40% of the DNA clearly belongs to multiple families of Mobile Elements, present from fully functional and active copies to barely recognizable mutated remnants. Using more sensitive sequence identification methods we see that as much as 70% of our genome may be of Mobile Element origin. In fact, most of our genome is constituted by the decomposing bodies of these invading armies. Considering that cellular protein-coding genes take up only 2% of the space, it is easy to understand that the impact of Mobile Elements in the evolution of our genome has been profound.

But beyond the purely cosmetic structural aspect, Mobile Elements may be contributing to a much more important process affecting genome function: the regulation of cellular genes. The 2% protein-coding fraction of the genome is controlled by non-coding sequences, where proteins bind to organize transcription. Non-coding regulatory sequences therefore determine when, where and with what intensity each gene is expressed. This very precise control of genes turning on and off in a coordinated manner is necessary for development.

We now know that a large fraction of regulatory sequence is derived from Mobile Elements. It is easy to understand why: being parasites that have to pack a lot of punch in a small stretch of DNA, they are often chock-full of regulatory sequences that guide their own transcription. They can even acquire new regulatory sequence into their movable unit, and disperse it across the genome as they multiply within it. As they insert near protein coding genes, they contribute this new sequence to their regulation. In this way, Mobile Elements can rapidly rewire gene regulatory networks, adding a new layer of plasticity to the evolution of the host that probably increases adaptability. Through this process Mobile Elements probably can, over evolutionary time, contribute to the fitness of their host genome.

 However, excessive Mobile Element activity can be very detrimental to the host in the short term. If they insert within a protein-coding gene, they can mutate it beyond repair. Also, having multiple copies of the same sequence in different parts of the genome can lead to chromosomal rearrangements by a process called non-allelic Homologous Recombination. We have seen this happen; the causing mutation of some cancers can be traced back to a Mobile Element, and it is suspected that non-allelic recombination underlies much of the structural variability that is observed in humans. To prevent these processes, all organisms have evolved genome defense mechanisms that keep Mobile Elements in check. When we look at our genome we are looking at a well-worn battlefield, the result of a delicate balance between counteracting forces of stability and plasticity that has contributed to our blind stumbles around the evolutionary landscape.

Social media & Science!

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Our Science Matters brings today two infographics about social media & science wishing all scientists and researchers around the world a productive and relaxing Summer break (if possible)! See you in September!


Uncovering the origins of cancer in healthy skin

Thursday, 2 July 2015

(Written by Iñigo Martincorena, Cancer Genome Project, Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute Cambridge, UK) 

In the year 2001, the sequence of the human genome was announced as a milestone in science history. This represented a nearly complete map of the common genetic information in all of us. The project had taken over 10 years, the work of thousands of scientists around the globe, and it had cost approximately 3,000 million euros. This huge effort marked the beginning of a genomic revolution in biology.

Although it provided an unprecedented wealth of information, a single reference sequence for all humans contained little information on what makes each of us different or on the basis of genetic diseases. Since then, however, sequencing technologies have evolved dramatically. Nowadays, a person can be sequenced in a few days for less than 1,000 euros, and the cost continues to drop rapidly. This has allowed us to go from a single reference human genome to sequencing many thousands of people, unravelling the basis of many diseases and bringing us much closer to an era of personalised genomics in the clinic.

A field that has benefited enormously from the boom of sequencing technologies is cancer research. Cancer is largely caused by mutations that accumulate in our cells throughout life, which make every tumour unique. Genome sequencing can be used to catalogue the entire list of mutations in a cancer, providing a detailed understanding of the basis of any given tumour. The first genome of a cancer was sequenced in 2009 at the Sanger Institute (Cambridge, United Kingdom), where I work as a postdoctoral researcher. Just 6 years later, over 10,000 cancers have been sequenced throughout the world, providing a detailed catalogue of the genes altered across a wide range of cancer types. And this number is predicted to increase to several hundred thousand in the next few years. This is proving to be an invaluable resource for cancer research and, as we continue to learn how to use this vast information, it will significantly improve cancer diagnosis and therapy.

Who do you love more… mom (species 1) or dad (species 2)?

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

The latest blockbuster ‘Jurassic World’ brings to our theaters a hybrid dinosaur. In their quest for the most terrifying creature ever, the movie’s ‘scientists’ combine traits of different dinosaur species to create the ultimate predator, which turns out to be big, insatiable… and intelligent. Quite obviously, the movie goes far beyond the state of the art of genetic engineering. That said, hybrids actually can be found everywhere in the real world. And some of them are ‘designed’ by us.

A hybrid is an individual that results from the combination of genomes of different species. Mankind has been raising hybrids from old, by controlled pairings of animals and plants to obtain desired traits in crops and cattle. For example, farmers have long been using mules (the hybrid offspring of a male donkey and a mare) to help laboring the fields, and lots of fruits, cereal crops and garden trees are hybrids selected by us to better suit our needs. Have you ever eaten frog legs? Yes, you’re right! Edible frogs are hybrids too.

Here in the Iberian Peninsula, we also have hybrid frogs. When an Iberian green waterfrog, or  Pérez’s frog (Pelophylax perezi) mates with an individual of other European species (P. ridibundus), a hybrid is formed: Pelophylax klepton grafi.  These three species together compose a hybridogenetic complex. This is because ADN of hybrid frogs contains 50% of each parental species but, amazingly, the eggs or sperm they produce contain exclusively P. ridibundus DNA. They can thus perpetuate a hybrid lineage just by mating with another P. perezi (see figure). If you think about it, they are certainly a mixture of two species but, when they mate, they genetically mimic just one of the parentals, so they perform as a ‘sexual parasite’ for the other parental species. That’s why they are called ‘klepton’ (from Greek, ‘robber’).

Example of the origin and perpetuation of a hybridogenetic lineage of Pelophylax klepton grafi. Matings may involve different sexes of each species than those in the figure. Note that, although adult hybrids are RP (2n chromosomes, half of them are from P. perezi and the other half are from P. ridibundus), they only produce R gametes, thereby discarding the whole P. perezi chromosome dotation in their germinal line. 

When hybrid frogs enter the ecosystem, they may outperform parental species, potentially leading them to extinction. Therefore, understanding the processes of hybridization and delineation of ranges of parental species and contact zones is critical for the conservation of involved species. This is challenging because all these species look extremely alike, and thus morphological identification is very difficult. For this reason, molecular tools are necessary to solve biological questions involving hybridization in water frogs.

A group of researchers from the University of Navarra, the Natural History Museum of Madrid and the Doñana Biological Station (CSIC) are developing sets of molecular tools to answer questions such as: ‘What is the distribution range of P. kl. grafi? Did this hybrid klepton originate naturally or as a result of human introductions? Can hybrids mate themselves and produce P. ridibundus offspring? Is the klepton displacing native P. perezi? These genetic markers have proven useful to distinguish among the three species within the complex and, by using them, we can assess the genetic variability of individuals to trace the history of hybrid lineages and solve these and other key issues.

So don’t panic in the theater. If a mad hybrid threatens you, we’ll be ready for it… as long as it is a frog!

Gregorio Sánchez-Montes
PhD Student
Department of Environmental Biology, University of Navarra

The Nano world…can you see it?

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

New revolutionary airplanes are made of nanocomposites, new cancer treatments use nanocarriers, new hydration creams use nanocapsules to keep you hydrated 24h and nanofibers are changing the clothes we wear. Furthermore, in the food industry nanoparticles in the packaging protect the contents longer from bacteria and degradation. Making planes lighter and stronger, drugs more target-specific, food with less preservatives, new generation cosmetics and smart packaging have one thing in common that is changing our lives: Nanotechnology.

[1] Serra‐Gómez R, Gonzalez-Gaitano G, González-Benito J. Composites based on EVA and barium titanate submicrometric particles: Preparation by high‐energy ball milling and characterization. Polym Compos 2012;33:1549–56.

Cannabinoids: a new frontier for the treatment of Parkinson´s disease

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

The first evidences about the use of cannabis arise from the second millennium BC, when Assyrians used cannabis or, as they called it, “the drug that takes away the mind” for its psychoactive, mind-altering effects and for its medical properties. Since it was brought to the western world in the 18th century, its use has been a source of controversy. Surprisingly, research on cannabis has advanced slowly. The major reason was the lack of knowledge about its basic chemistry. Unlike morphine and cocaine, which were isolated and used for research since the 19th century,  the chemical structures of the psychoactive constituents of cannabis were not isolated until the 1960s. There are over 400 chemicals in cannabis, 80 of them unique to this plant. The exact chemical composition differs between plant species, the parts of the plant and growing conditions. Once the chemistry of the plant was elucidated and the psychoactive molecules identified, it was possible to find the bases of the endocannabinoid system, which is particularly relevant to functions associated with the central nervous system such as pain, mood or apetite. The elements of the endocannabinoid system are highly expressed in brain structures related to movement control, suggesting that they could also be involved in movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease.