HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping agreed to establish a presidential hotline and resume military communications, signaling progress in their first face-to-face meeting in a year. The leaders, meeting near San Francisco, discussed strained relations, particularly over Taiwan. They committed to re-establish military contacts, which were severed after Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit in August 2022. Biden characterized Xi as a dictator, a comment likely to irritate China. Xi, in response, noted unfair U.S. perceptions of the Communist Party. They discussed human rights, detained U.S. citizens, and Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea. The leaders also agreed to collaborate on curbing fentanyl production and to discuss artificial intelligence risks. On Taiwan, while Xi mentioned peaceful reunification, he did not rule out the use of force. Biden emphasized the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. The meeting concluded positively, with Biden expressing satisfaction and Xi underscoring the importance of U.S.-China relations. (Reuters)
The U.S. House of Representatives approved a ban on federal funding for gain-of-function research, which can make pathogens more harmful, as part of the 2024 House spending bill for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The amendment, proposed by Representatives Thomas Massie and Mariannette Miller-Meeks, could unintentionally halt a wide range of studies, raising concerns among scientific groups. This ban extends to HHS-funded researchers in the U.S. and not just in China and other “adversary” countries, as was the case previously. The amendment aims to prevent funding for research involving “potential pandemic pathogens.” This move follows debates about the risks and benefits of such research, especially after COVID-19, which some politicians believe originated from gain-of-function research. The American Society for Microbiology warns that this broad interpretation could impact essential studies like vaccine development. Other amendments propose further restrictions, including budget cuts and limitations on diverse medical research topics. The bill’s fate remains uncertain due to the partisan split between the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic-led Senate. (Science)
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The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared loneliness a significant global health threat, equating its mortality effects to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. An international commission, led by the US Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, and the African Union youth envoy, Chido Mpemba, is addressing this issue, especially highlighted during the Covid-19 pandemic. The commission comprises 11 members, including global advocates and government ministers, and will focus on social connection over three years. Loneliness, affecting health and wellbeing, is a worldwide concern, with risks greater than obesity and physical inactivity. It is prevalent in both older and younger populations, linked to a higher risk of dementia, heart disease, and stroke in the elderly, and affecting educational and economic outcomes in adolescents. The issue is particularly acute in Africa, where factors like unemployment and the digital divide intensify social isolation among the youth. This initiative aims to redefine the narrative around loneliness, emphasizing its impact as a public health threat. (The Guardian)
New Delhi faces severe air pollution, ranking as the world’s most polluted city, with an air quality index of 509, deemed “hazardous.” The city’s smog, intensified by farm fires in nearby Punjab despite a court ban, is exacerbated by north-westerly winds carrying smoke and poor local wind conditions for pollutant dispersion. Over 2,500 farm fires were reported in Punjab, and local authorities are considering legal actions against violators. Air quality in northern India typically worsens in winter due to trapped emissions from various sources. Delhi has implemented measures like construction bans, school closures, restricting non-essential vehicle entry, and water spraying to mitigate pollution. However, plans for cloud seeding to induce rain, a potential solution to the smog, have been delayed due to a lack of cloud cover, with the original schedule around November 20 now postponed. Authorities continue to discuss further actions to combat the escalating air pollution crisis. (Channel News Asia)
Iceland’s south-western peninsula faces potential decades of volcanic instability, the Icelandic Met Office (IMO) warns. The town of Grindavik was evacuated due to earthquakes and imminent eruption threats after an 800-year dormant period. The recent seismic activity, part of a new eruptive cycle on the Reykjanes Peninsula, is unusual in modern times, with magma moving underground and causing significant land subsidence. Grindavik has sunk by over a meter recently, continuing to descend at about 4cm per day. An eruption seems likely soon, posing risks of infrastructure damage and toxic gas release. This situation is rare in Iceland, known for its volcanic activity due to its location over the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The anticipated eruption, though not explosive, could be prolonged, affecting nearby areas including the Svartsengi power station and the Blue Lagoon. Protective measures are underway, but prolonged eruptions can overwhelm even Iceland’s advanced lava control techniques. (BBC)
MONKEY LAUNDERING ISN’T HELPFUL.
In 2019, immunologist Jonah Sacha faced a major setback when a monkey in a shipment intended for infectious disease research was found carrying tuberculosis (TB), rendering all 20 monkeys unusable and delaying his HIV research significantly. This incident highlights the growing concern among scientists about “monkey laundering,” where laboratory monkeys are illegally poached and falsely labeled as captive-bred. Long-tailed macaques, crucial for infectious-disease research, are in short supply globally, especially after China, the largest exporter, halted exports at the onset of COVID-19. The scarcity has led to skyrocketing costs and a burgeoning black market for research monkeys. Recent incidents, including a major smuggling case involving Cambodian long-tailed macaques falsely labeled as captive-bred, underscore the issue. Using wild monkeys in research poses significant risks, as they can carry various diseases, affecting the validity of medical trials and experimental results. Research institutions are advised to scrutinize their sources and regularly audit breeding facilities to ensure compliance with regulations. Genotyping is suggested as a means to track the origins of research monkeys, emphasizing the importance of using well-managed, captive-bred animals for consistent and reliable data. (Nature)
ENLISTING AI IN ELEPHANT CONSERVATION.
The J. R. Soc. Interface Review, discussed by Dr. Leandra Brickson and Professor Fritz Vollrath, examines the role of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in elephant conservation. The Review emphasizes AI’s potential in enhancing monitoring techniques, which is essential for effective conservation and management. It also addresses the need to distinguish between AI’s exaggerated expectations and its practical conservation applications. Collaboration is crucial in this field, requiring clear communication between AI specialists and conservationists. AI experts need to understand field-specific challenges, while conservationists should provide clear objectives for AI applications. This synergy is essential given AI’s limitations in unpredictable wild environments. The integration of Machine Learning and AI in conservation raises socio-economic and ethical considerations, particularly regarding the human impact on elephants. Looking ahead, the focus is on developing energy-efficient animal tracking tools. Innovations like smart sensors that analyze data on-site and miniaturized tracking devices could revolutionize conservation methods, reducing stress on animals and predicting behavioral patterns. (Royal Society B)
GAMMA RAY BURST DELETED EARTH’S OZONE.
On October 9, 2022, a gamma ray burst from a supernova 1.9 billion light-years away caused a temporary change in Earth’s upper atmosphere, including a partial depletion of ozone molecules. This event, the brightest gamma ray burst ever recorded, had a measurable impact on the ionosphere, the atmospheric layer 37 to 310 miles above Earth. Detected by the China Seismo-Electromagnetic Satellite and correlated with data from the European Space Agency’s International Gamma-Ray Astrophysics Laboratory, this burst ionized ozone and nitrogen molecules, temporarily reducing their ability to absorb ultraviolet radiation. This is the first time scientists have observed a cosmic explosion affecting the entire ionosphere. While gamma ray bursts have previously ionized molecules up to 215 miles above Earth, the recent event proves their influence can extend higher. The ozone layer, which protects against the sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation, repaired itself shortly after. The event highlights the potential impact of cosmic phenomena on Earth, emphasizing the importance of understanding the ionosphere’s response to such incidents. Though a much larger burst could weaken Earth’s protective barrier for days or months, such occurrences are rare and require precise orientation to impact Earth. (New York Times)
The “Tasmanian devil,” an unusual luminous fast blue optical transient (LFBOT), has puzzled astronomers with its multiple peak brightness flashes following its initial explosion. LFBOTs, first identified in 2018, are brighter and evolve faster than supernovae, but their origins remain unclear. Theories include failed supernovae, interactions with Wolf-Rayet stars, or black holes consuming stars. Anna Ho’s team observed the Tasmanian devil, located about 1 billion parsecs away, recording 14 flares each as intense as the initial explosion. These observations suggest a failed supernova, where a massive star collapses into a neutron star or black hole, could be the cause. The flares might be energy jets from the central object. The Vera C. Rubin Observatory, opening next year, will likely discover more LFBOTs, providing further insights. Quick detection after explosions is essential for detailed study. The Tasmanian devil’s flaring behavior indicates LFBOTs significantly differ from supernovae, hinting at complex cosmic phenomena. (Nature)
Thanks for reading. Let’s be careful out there.
WORDS: The Biology Guy.
IMAGE CREDIT: White House.