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A Powerful Find that can change gene in Insects, Animals and Plants

Scientists are looking for ways to use this advance to curb diseases like malaria by destroying the problem at its stem itself

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genetics
Genetically Engineered Mosquitoes to combat Zika Virus. Image Courtesy: Getty Images
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  • Study shows that genes of an entire species can be modified 
  • This discovery was used in making malaria in Brazil that are resistant to Zika Virus
  • Few scientists are worried bioterrorists will cause havoc if this technology reaches their hands

Valentino Gantz, a graduate student, was recently successful in changing the genetic modelling of brown fruit flies in such a way they their offspring all turned out to be blonde. This discovery proved to be a milestone in the way genetics is understood by scientists. The changes that are made in the genes have the possibility of being passed on to newer generations. Fruit flies were used in particular since their biological settings help biologists study pathogens that cause human diseases.

“I believe it’s going to transform the world of genetics,” Biologist Ethan Bier says, “because it’s going to allow researchers to bypass the rules of genetics in many different spheres of activity.” Ethan Bier runs a laboratory at the University of California, San Diego.

What Gantz demonstrated was a new technique that could make that happen almost every time. Scientists call it a “gene drive.”

genetics
A Brown Fruit Fly. Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Gene drive is a breakthrough discovery by a panel of influential scientists of  National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. The report that the panel came up with greatly appreciated the efforts that were put in to obtain these results. This means that, if done right, most of the major viruses that claim human lives today can be eradicated. An example is the use of genetically influenced mosquitoes that were released in Brazil to combat the vicious Zika virus.

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However, there’s a long way to go before scientists can start using this information in today’s genetics. There is a very high possibility of mistakes at the molecular level, which will have exponential effects. Scientists cannot afford to disturb the delicate balance that exists in the ecosystems.

According to an independent report, “It’s possible that a particular altered trait could cause unexpected and possibly harmful side-effects on other organisms when spread through a particular species using a drive. The risks will primarily depend on the alteration and species rather than on the drive itself. This is why proposed gene drive must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis – it’s all about the trait, species and ecosystem in question.”

genetics
Academics of Sciences, Engineering and Medicines. Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Scientists who work in the field of genetics have been able to make changes in the gene for decades, but what is exciting about this new discovery is that now, a change in an organism can be quickly passed on to the next generation, and eventually an entire species. This is achieved by creating a change in the sequence of the DNA molecule itself.

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Scientists are looking for ways to use this advance to curb diseases like malaria by destroying the problem at its stem itself. Mosquitoes are being genetically modified so that they can no longer carry the parasite.

Anthony James of the University of California, Irvine, one of the scientists who created the mosquitoes that can block malaria, lauded the report for providing a calculated framework while performing the research. “I think it’s actually fair and balanced and well done,” James says. “I think they did a really good job.”

However, there are experts who fear if this technology is placed in the wrong hands, it can be used by bioterrorists to create large scale havoc. Not only will it destroy ecosystems, but also allow evolution of new diseases and spread the reach of existing diseases to new areas.

-by Saurabh Bodas, an intern at NewsGram. Twitter: @saurabhbodas96

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  • Pashchiema Bhatia

    Genetics is the most complicated study in Biology and has proved itself in curing a lot of diseases. Still a lot more can be achieved through it.

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Insurance Claims From California’s Wildfire At $9 Billion

State and federal officials are currently removing hazardous household materials from the damaged properties.

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California, Insurance
California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones talks about the costs of recent wildfires during a news conference in Sacramento, California. VOA

Insurance claims from last month’s California wildfires already are at $9 billion and expected to increase, the state’s insurance commissioner announced Wednesday.

About $7 billion in claims are from the Camp Fire that destroyed the Northern California city of Paradise and killed at least 86 people, making it the deadliest U.S. wildfire in at least a century. The rest is from the Woolsey and Hill fires in Southern California.

Collectively, the fires destroyed or damaged more than 20,000 structures, with the vast majority in and around Paradise. On Tuesday, state and federal authorities estimated it will cost at least $3 billion just to clear debris.

“As the claims get perfected, as individuals get access to their former homes and neighborhoods, as they dialogue with their insurance companies and share more information about the scope of their loss, we expect these numbers to rise,” Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones said of the $9 billion estimate.

California, Wildfire, Insurance
Jennifer Christensen sorts through items found in a safe at the remains of her home Dec. 5, 2018, in Paradise, California. VOA

Over 28,000 claims

There are more than 28,000 claims for residential personal property, nearly 2,000 from commercial property and 9,400 in auto and other claims for the fires.

That’s well above the number of claims filed following a series of fires that tore through Northern California’s wine country last year. Losses from those fires were initially pegged at $3.3 billion but eventually grew to $10 billion.

While the Camp Fire destroyed about double the number of structures as the 2017 fires, home values in Butte County are far lower than those in Sonoma County. That’s part of the reason total claims may seem low compared to the 2017 figures, Jones said. Median home values in Sonoma County are more than double those in Butte.

Jones advised home owners to be cautious of “fraudsters and scam artists” trying to take advantage of vulnerable communities.

California, Fire prevention, wildfires, Insurance, rain
A controlled burn ignites pine trees on the “Rough Fire” — which closed camps east of Fresno at Hume Lake as it crossed Highway 180 — in the Sequoia National Forest in California, Aug. 21, 2015. VOA

He also said its time for California to start rethinking how and if it builds in fire-prone areas. Ken Pimlott, outgoing director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told The Associated Press this week the state should consider banning construction in vulnerable areas.

Jones said local governments may not be fully considering the long-term impacts of building in areas at high risk of fire, floods and rising sea levels.

“That’s going to be a hard conversation. Everybody likes to build new, people obviously want to rebuild their communities,” he said. “We’re in a new era where these risks are so bad I think we’ve really got to take a look at how we’re making these decisions.”

Cause of fire remains unknown

Authorities are still determining what caused the fire.

Pacific Gas & Electric told regulators that a high-voltage power line malfunctioned at the time and spot that investigators believe the fire started on Nov. 8.

California, Fire prevention, wildfires, Insurance
Joe Balog, a workforce management director at Travelers, examines weather, social media and other data from recent natural disasters inside the company’s catastrophe response command center in Windsor, Connecticut. VOA

The San Francisco-based utility told the California Public Utilities Commission on Tuesday that several miles away workers found a fallen power pole and equipment with bullet holes.

86 deaths linked to fire

A number of fire victims have filed lawsuits alleging that PG&E’s equipment started the fire that destroyed the town of Paradise and killed at least 86 people.

The cleanup costs for last month’s fires will far surpass the record expense of $1.3 billion the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers spent on debris removal in Northern California in 2017.

California Office of Emergency Services Director Mark Ghilarducci said the state will manage cleanup contracts this time. Last year, hundreds of Northern California homeowners complained that contractors paid by the ton hauled away too much dirt and damaged unbroken driveways, sidewalks and pipes.

The state OES spent millions repairing that damage.

California, School
Trees reflect in a swimming pool outside Erica Hail’s Paradise, Calif., home, which burned during the Camp Fire. VOA

Lesson learned

Ghilarducci said the state OES will hire auditors and monitors to watch over debris removal in hopes of cutting down on the number of over-eager contractors.

“We learned a great number of things,” last year, Ghilarducci said.

Also Read: Insurance Company’s Response To Wildfire Claims Better Due to Technology

He said the U.S. Corps of Engineers was asked to lead the effort last year because state resources were stretched thin after responding to more than a dozen wildfires. This year, he said state officials can manage the cleanup and costs will be shared among state, federal and local authorities.

Cleanup is expected to begin in January and take about a year to complete. State and federal officials are currently removing hazardous household materials from the damaged properties. (VOA)