Algae, SARS, and Talking Whales: Science News

This past month, the National Research Council (NRC) determined that large-scale production of biofuels from algae will not be cost- and energy-effective with current technologies.  Although algae-based biofuel production has been explored for the past thirty years, the process has recently become more popular due to the fact that algae growth doesn’t take away land from food crops.  Other biofuel production methods that use corn or sugar as the starting material require land that normally produces sustenance for humans and animals, but algae can be grown in shallow outdoor ponds or bioreactors that can utilize land unsuitable for farming.

This figure shows how biofuels are obtained from algae.

Algae growth requires a significant amount of water, nitrogen, and phosphorous.  The vast quantities needed far exceed those currently required to produce petroleum-based gasoline (3.15-3650 liters of water for algae verses 1.9 litres for petroleum), and therefore render algae-biofuel production more consumptive and less efficient than traditional gasoline production.  The NRC recommended that new avenues for sustainability of algae-biofuel should be proposed and developed.  Examples of these would be recycling of the water used in production, or utilizing a nutrient-rich wastewater source already present in agricultural or municipal operations.  Science News reports more on the story here.

In other news, the SARS virus has been added to the list of “select agents” by US health agencies.  This list is comprised of pathogens and toxins that “pose a severe threat to public health and safety” if they are accidentally exposed to the general population.  Research with select agents may only be conducted in a biosafety-level-4 (BSL-4) laboratory, so those currently working with SARS in previously-acceptable BSL-3 facilities have until April 3rd to either move to BSL-4 facilities or end their SARS research projects.  The US government estimates that this will affect 38 laboratories.

The CDC website shows a picture of BSL-4 required personal protective equipment.

The new regulations could also change the ability to share SARS virus or reagents between US-based labs and labs in other countries.  Michael Buchmeier, deputy director of the Pacific Southwest Center of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases at the University of California, Irvine, warns that “the threat of criminal prosecution and severe penalties will have a chilling effect on the kinds of collaborative efforts that have characterized SARS work up untill now.”  You can read more about this change on the Nature News website.

Finally, marine biologists documented the ability of a beluga whale named NOC to imitate human speech.  Published in Current Biology, and originally documented at a conference in 1985, Sam Ridgway described NOC’s ability to copy the sounds of his trainers and caretakers as he heard them speaking from underwater.  You can listen to the recording here.  Ridgway and colleagues determined that NOC was making the sounds by increasing the air pressure through his nasal cavities, then modifying the sounds by moving his phonic lips (small vibrating structures sitting above each nasal cavity).

Beluga whales naturally communicate with each other, but NOC’s vocalizations were unlike normal whale sounds.

One thought on “Algae, SARS, and Talking Whales: Science News

  1. Pingback: November Issue | BCMB News

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