Archive for December 11, 2008



Bush Administration drops effort to torpedo clean air rules

Source: Raw Story~Associated Press

Six weeks before leaving office, the Bush administration is giving up on an effort to ease restrictions on pollution from coal-burning power plants, a key plank of its original energy agenda and one that put the president at odds with environmentalists his entire eight years in the White House.

President George W. Bush had hoped to make both changes to air pollution regulations final before leaving office on Jan. 20. In the midst of a coal-fired power plant construction boom, the rules would have made it easier for energy companies to expand existing facilities and to erect new power plants in areas of the country that meet air quality standards.

But the Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday conceded that it didn’t have enough time to complete the rules changes, which were undermined by a federal court decision earlier this year that scrapped a signature component of Bush’s clean air policies.

The EPA, in a statement, said that it ”will continue to advocate for the important health benefits” the initiatives would have achieved.

Environmentalists, however, said the decision would leave intact for the incoming Obama administration the strongest tools under the law for dealing with power plant pollution.

”It’s stunning. This is the most high profile prize sought by the utility industry,” said John Walke, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council. ”It would have entangled the incoming administration up in a new rulemaking process while causing harm in many parts of the country.”

The proposal, first unveiled in 2005, would have changed how existing coal-fired power plants calculate emissions increases to determine whether they need to install pollution control equipment. The Bush administration wanted to base the calculation on an hourly rate, rather than an annual average. Environmentalists and governors of Northeastern states said such a change would have resulted in more of the pollution that causes acid rain and smog problems in the region.

The second rule would have made it easier for power plants to be built in areas with some of the cleanest areas of the country, including national parks, by changing how states, the EPA and others assess how the new source of pollution would affect air quality. That proposal was opposed by the National Park Service and some of the agency’s own regional air quality experts.

”The overturning of these rules is a huge victory for Tennesseans and all Americans who enjoy our great American outdoors,” said Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican who led an effort with other senators opposing the changes as a threat to air quality in national parks, including the Great Smoky Mountains.

Electricity producers long have argued that the standard for triggering pollution control requirements should be based on an hourly measurement rate. The issue came to a head during the Clinton administration, which went after dozens of coal-fired power plants across the country for making modifications that were increasing emissions.

Some of those enforcement cases ended up in court. In 2007, power companies lost their argument before the Supreme Court and the Bush administration then had to rewrite its regulation to comply with the court’s ruling.

Industry representatives expressed disappointment with the EPA’s decision.

”The rule would have brought further clarity to Clean Air Act enforcement,” said Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a coalition of power companies. ”Unfortunately, the agency missed an opportunity. … It seems clear that EPA wants to give the Obama administration an opportunity to grapple with this important issue on their own.”

Wired Science

Image: Wired Science


(Image: Synthetic SARS virus (tagged with fluorescent green protein) growing in mouse respiratory tissue / PNAS)

Synthetic Viruses Could Explain Animal-to-Human Jumps

Source:  By Brandon Keim ~ Wired Science

In a technical tour de force with potentially profound implications for the study of emerging diseases, researchers have built the largest-ever self-replicating organism from scratch.

The organism is a virus based on genome sequences taken from a bat-borne version of SARS, a lethal respiratory disease that jumped from animals to humans in 2002. The synthetic virus could help explain how SARS evolved, and the same approach could be used to investigate other species-hopping killers.

“This gives us a system to more quickly answer the questions of where a virus came from, of how to develop vaccines and treatments for a brand-new virus that leaps to humans like SARS did,” said Vanderbilt University microbiologist Mark Denison.

Just a decade ago, artificially constructed viruses seemed like science fiction. But the field of synthetic biology has progressed with extraordinary rapidity. Six years ago, polio became the first virus to be synthesized. Three years ago, biologists reconstructed an influenza strain from the 1918 epidemic, in the process discovering what made it so lethal. The synthetic SARS virus is even more complicated than either of those creations. And as such research has progressed, concerns have intensified over viruses jumping from animals to people, then spreading rapidly through a globalized world of international travel and migration.

In some cases, scientists might — as with SARS — suspect the identity of the original animal virus, but not understand the murky process by which it became infectious in humans. In other cases, they might want to know what is needed for an existing animal virus to enter people. But it’s not always easy to study viruses: many are impossible to grow in a lab, or known from just a few wild samples. That’s when synthetic viruses could be useful.

“It can be very hard to study where a virus originally came from,” said Denison. “If you start from where you think the virus was, and let the virus tell you where it’s going, then you learn a tremendous amount about viral evolution and movement.”

In the case of SARS, which killed nearly 800 people before being contained, scientists think it came from bats, but have been unable to keep the bat version alive in laboratory cell cultures. 

Denison’s team used the genetic sequence of bat SARS to build the virus. Bat SARS doesn’t normally infect people, but the researchers added a critical tweak: a gene present only in the human version of the virus. The new version flourished in human cell cultures, suggesting that a mutation in the gene, known as Bat-SRBD, was responsible for SARS’ lethal spread.

The new virus did not kill mice, however. Other genetic differences between the synthetic and natural strains can now be studied to learn what makes SARS so virulent, said Denison, and the technique applied to other viruses similar to SARS. These include the Ebola, Hanta, Nipah and Chikunguya viruses, all of which originated in animals and are lethal to people.

“You could get to a point where, within a couple weeks of an epidemic being identified, you’ve already grown and generated viruses for the study of immune response,” said Denison.

Whether the technique is useful elsewhere remains be seen, but “there’s a good possibility” that it will, said Peter Palese, a Mount Sinai Medical Center microbiologist. Palese edited the paper, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but was not involved in the research itself. 

Even if it’s experimental, he said, researchers need to try.

“If we were successful with conventional approaches,” said Palese, “then they would have worked already.”

Synthetic recombinant bat SARS-like coronavirus is infectious in cultured cells and in mice [PNAS]

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