CRISPR beer

A startup called Berkeley Brewing Science is using a gene-editing tool knows as CRISPR-Cas9 to make hoppy beer without hops. Hops are very cool, I grow a few varieties in my back yard. They are beautiful plants, bines actually, not vines, as they climb by twining and not by suckers. Commercially the male plants are ruthlessly excluded from production in order to prevent the females from being fertilized. Like sinsemilla pot, the fruits (called cones) become laden with the desired essential oils and are then harvested, dried, and processed. My plants came from rhizomes and most cultivars of hops (Humulus lupulus) are clones and are propagated vegetatively, much like cannabis.

So why make beer without hops? For one, hops are thirsty. It is estimated that 100 billion liters (100 GL) of water are needed annually for the U.S. crop. For perspective, the harbor at Sydney in Australia holds about 500 GL of water. In fact, that amount, 500 Gigaliters, is known as a “sydharb” (thank you Wolfram Alpha). And people think Austin Sendek‘s “hella-” prefix (as in the Earth has a mass of six hellagrams) is silly.

Imagine doing something environmentally friendly like reducing water use with a technology that greens love to hate, gene-editing! Certainly that is not the only reason to make beer without hops. The main reason, I expect, is to increase the brewer’s control over the product. Hops introduce a lot of variability and even the small craft brewers want consistent flavors even if they aren’t as paranoid as those who oversee something like Budweiser.

One of the features of modern life is increased quality control. The drugs we buy today at the pharmacy are cleaner and purer than drugs have ever been. Our food supply is far more predictable and much safer than ever before. Even the recent E. coil—Romaine lettuce scare affected only a few dozen people in a nation of 340 million. And it was unusual in that the CDC could NOT trace the source of the infection. Usually they can track that stuff down. We are so spoiled by quality control that we reject pharmaceuticals in favor of “natural herbs” and we crave “authentic” and “local” foods instead of mass-produced ones. This despite no evidence that the modern stuff is unhealthier and the “retro” stuff is healthier. If you slap a picture of a farmer in overalls next to a happy cow on your cheese package people will pay extra.

An article in Nature Communications (Industrial brewing yeast engineered for the production of primary flavor determinants in hopped beer by CM Denby, RA Li, et. al.,) has this wonderful line:

While historic consumer trepidation towards genetically engineered foods is of concern for widespread adoption, the general increase in consumer acceptance of such foods when tied to increased sustainability is encouraging.

I’d say cost and taste matter more, but this works, too. The beer produced in the study quoted above apparently compared favorably to hoppy commercial beers like Sierra Nevada’s Torpedo IPA. But taster panels, even trained ones, display a lot of variation so we’ll see what happens with actual beer consumers. I expect they’ll be quaffing pints of the stuff sooner than they’ll realize. I’ve no problem with such beers, no one says you actually have to use hops. If you think about it, the malt already contains the precursors of the chemicals that create hop flavors! The gene-editing allows the new yeast to activate bio-synthesis pathways to produce geraniol and linalool which are naturally-occurring terpene alcohols present in many, many aromatic fruits, flowers, and other plant parts.

The researchers used gene sequences from basil (Ocimum basilicum) and a mint (Mentha citrata) to engineer a brewer’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) to produce more of the desired geraniol and linalool during fermentation, enough for tasters to perceive as hop flavors in the finished beer. Obviously hops themselves are more complex than just these two molecules, and create, presumably, a broader taste palate. But this kind of application is only just beginning and I expect that brewers will have a much larger yeast toolkit very soon. As a homebrewer I have access to at least three dozen commercial-grade yeast strains in both liquid and powder form for a relatively low cost where there were only a handful thirty years ago, and nowhere near the quality.

I blogged about CRISPR a while ago (you say “crisper” just like it looks) and I’m pretty much squarely in the camp of the GMO-enthusiasts. I’ve no fear of Dr. Frankenstein. There’s a fellow recently who claims he’s made CRISPR-modified babies although some don’t believe him. Regardless, it is a chilling thought. Few would be opposed to gene editing that helped a baby overcome a birth defect and thrive rather than suffer. But such things are hard to draw boundaries around, and the general feeling is that experimenting on humans is at least ethically dubious, if not entirely barbaric. We are facing those questions now as bioengineering is mainstream stuff, not science fiction. The boundary lines will blur quickly when take-home GMO kits are available at Rite-Aid, and I don’t think that’s as far away as we want to believe.

In the meantime I hope the folks at Berkeley Brewing Science can cook up a homebrewer’s version of their no-hops-needed yeast. I’d love to try it.

The Autumnal Bookshelf

We are enjoying a spectacular fall here in our little nook in the State of Jefferson. The temperature drops at night, flirting with frost, but the afternoons are still warm enough for t-shirts and shorts. The colors, albeit our limited Western versions, have been out for weeks and show no sign of abating. The riding has been sublime. Our local trail haven is hardly used and we have it mostly to ourselves on our twice-weekly mountain bike jaunts, a bunch hearty and (we hope) hardy oldsters fighting off old age. It’s shoveling sand on the beach, but it’s fun and good for us.

My mind needs the workout as well. I should say my mind-body nexus craves multiple inputs. I need to wheeze from over-exertion and reel from trippy fictions in at least equal measure. Just about everything I read is fiction and I define fiction as anything without footnotes. I love a good history tome and I expect lots of footnotes and an extensive bibliography. Otherwise it is just bullshit. It might be interesting, well-written bullshit, but still bullshit. I figure if you are going to all that trouble to make bullshit then quit faking it and call it fiction.

In the mail coming any day is the second volume (The Man Who Went Up in Smoke) of the Martin Beck series of police procedurals by Per Wahlöö and Maj Söwall. That completes my collection. These are from late-60s to mid-70s Sweden and have a taut, just-the-facts-ma’am style. The laconic protagonist tosses in a bit of wry humor, but he’s mostly a grim fellow doing a grim fellow’s job, that of chasing down murderers. Equally grim, but in an entirely different vein, are John le Carré’s spy thrillers. Found one I didn’t have (Our Kind of Traitor, 2010) and polished it off. He’s getting crankier in his later years but he’s just as sharp and entertaining. The Cold War was grist for his mill for a long time, now he’s more interested in rogue financiers, Russian mobsters, and Englishmen who sell out their country while serving it.

One of my all-time favorite books was recently returned to me and so I had to re-read it. Nothing can prepare you for Jack Womack, but Elvissey (1993) is probably his most accessible creation. It is part of a six-novel series about a near-future corporate-dominated dystopian America, but that’s just the setting. Womack’s voice is unique and his characters use a peculiar argot coupled with syntactic inversions that are both funny and unsettling. It reminds you a little of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange but is its own thing. The novel can be read alone or as part of the larger work. Another writer with a great ear is Mark Twain and I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn after I finished Elvissey. It had been decades since I’d opened it and it was a lot of fun. Both novels concern themselves with the American South, with ante-bellum Missouri the focus for Twain, an alternate-past post-WWII Mississippi for Womack.

Awaiting consumption is Jim Thompson’s The Alcoholics (1953). He’s always good for a brisk descent into hell, but unlike le Carré his hells are confined to small towns and lonely places. The globe-trotters in le Carré could just as easily be playing tennis in Antigua as they could be listening to wiretaps in Berlin. Thompson’s lead players are losers and psychopaths, le Carré’s are professionals and renaissance men; but both love grifters and con artists.

There aren’t many novels about the Korean War and I came across Pat Frank’s Hold Back the Night which was made into a movie with John Payne in 1956. I also picked up Frank’s Forbidden Area, also from 1956. Much of the fiction from this era is short, compact, and suspenseful, qualities I appreciate. There are many outstanding novelists working today but I find the trend toward longer and larger books less appealing. If you can’t say it in under three hundred pages you are probably trying too hard.

Speaking of contemporary stuff, I also just finished Gold Fame Citrus (2015) from Clare Vaye Watkins. It’s what they call “cli-fi” these days, short for “climate fiction” which assumes global warming catastrophe scenarios come true. In this case a perfectly plausible massive drought sweeps across the American Southwest as well as most of California and Nevada. A compelling story and good characters kept me engaged despite the overtly literary indulgences peppered throughout the narrative. This is one of the things I prefer about straight genre fiction—fewer opportunities for folderol and jibber-jabber. Editors were more slash-prone back in the day, it seems, now they are more encouraging and accepting. I like to read a lot of books and I get worn out if they take too long. Short & sweet and cut-to-the-chase is more my style.

Also on the soon-to-be-read shelf are another cli-fi, this one from Paolo Bacigalupi called The Water Knife, and Paula Hawkins‘ neo-noir The Girl on the Train which was made into a movie with Emily Blunt. Both were published in 2015.

So—what’s on your autumnal bookshelf?

It Explains Everything!

We got an insert in our local paper last Friday. We don’t subscribe, but pick it up at the supermarket while shopping. It was a full-color, two-sided, information-dense, letter-sized advertisement. What was being advertised was not a product. It was much better.

It explained everything.

It was certainly less predictable than a religious tract. And certainly much more sophisticated than the lowest of the low, the political mailers. This stuff was not only equally serious but at least as plausible.

Bible enthusiasts provide good reading material, it is usually logically sound if you accept the basic (absurd) premises. The stuff from your government representatives is laughably simplistic, and the voter propaganda on propositions is borderline dangerous. This fellow—and it appears to be one fellow—focuses on stuff you can really see.

Contrails. Or, I should say, chemtrails. You know, the stuff that the big ol’ jet airliners spew out. Condensation is of course a natural consequence of combustion. Just check your breath on a cold day, that’s the combustion of last night’s enchiladas. And there’s no doubt that burning fossil fuels makes air pollution. So it is safe to say that the air transport sector is responsible for spewing bad stuff into the atmosphere. Hey, join the club. We the people do our best to spew bad stuff into the atmosphere every day, what with our impossible energy demands. All those trips in the car, all that hot water and A/C and everything else. Air pollution is like farting, we all do it.

Seems this fellow who shared his wisdom with us via the newspaper insert is concerned that contrails/chemtrails aren’t just air pollution from jets. They are a deliberate government geo-engineering plan to change the earth’s climate. From the insert:

Covert global climate engineering programs are wreaking havoc with Earth’s life support systems and human health . . .

Our noble leaders and other power elites have, for decades, used the jets criss-crossing our skies to dump particular chemicals into the air in order to mess with the weather. The goal, it seems, is to cause catastrophic global warming in order to, and this part I’m not sure about, subjugate the citizenry under the guise of saving it. Natural disasters are the perfect time for the government to move in and take over. Evacuations, in particular, are great opportunities to seize control.

At least that’s what it seems, reading this stuff over. It is all very science-y and ties in lots of environmental issues that appeal to people all over the political spectrum, everything from carcinogens in the water and honeybee die-offs to severe droughts and catastrophic forest fires.

In order to have a workable conspiracy theory you have to have nuggets of truth. We’ve all seen the jets overhead spewing their exhausts. Since most of us probably don’t think about jet exhaust, having someone come along and break it down for us is very appealing. Everybody likes a good explanation. I used to provide explanations for a living, I understand their appeal. Life is complicated and when you think about more global issues, like ecological disasters, it is easy to feel despair and helplessness. Having it all tied together with a clear set of reasons is nice. Global warming aka climate change is a popular topic these days and to present it as the result of a high-level conspiracy is brilliant. Humans are indeed responsible for global warming, just not the way the scientists say! Scientists, lately, have about as much credibility as the mainstream media. One consequence of the internet is that now everyone is an expert and has their own soapbox. Or at least you can find one to better suit you if you don’t like what you are currently hearing!

Here’s more:

Any and all entities/individuals that are in any way associated with the illegal geoengineering operations must be fully exposed. Once exposed, all such entities/individuals must be held legally and morally accountable for their part in the climate engineering atrocities.

Moral outrage is very appealing as well. Our ideologies give us plenty of stuff to get pissed off about. If you want to gather people to your cause then get their dander up about something. I also like the smug, we-are-all-in-the-know-here attitude. All the stupid people out there, the drones going about their daily lives, are too zombied-out to be properly angry about the “atrocities” going on around them. But we here at fill-in-the-blank will keep you informed with THE TRUTH.

In the end it is all about THE TRUTH. We all want it. We all seek it. The trouble with science is that it can only provide truths with a lowercase-t and not Truth with the reassuring gravitas of an uppercase-T, let alone the screaming fury of ALL CAPS.

I’m not sure what this fellow gets out of his propaganda. I suppose it is rude of me to call it that. He probably believes it with a religious fervor. And you can’t really argue with that kind of thing. I don’t have religious fervor so I can’t really say how it feels or what it’s like. I imagine it gives you an authenticity that is hard to fake. That’s the flip side, the guy could be a complete fake, the whole geo-engineering kerfuffle a giant con. But confidence games are generally money-making schemes. I don’t see a lot of money-making potential here. Sure, he sells books and DVDs but that’s actually a hard way to get rich. There’s a lot of competition out there. And there are no ads on his website, but there is a donate button.

In a capitalist economy lots of things are for sale. Even supposedly non-profit enterprises like churches and charities are in the sales business. This fellow is another in the great American tradition of salesmen. From the tragic Willy Loman to the comic Cal Worthington salesmen are part-and-parcel of our Constitutionally-protected pursuit of happiness. Now I’m not buying what he’s selling, mind you, but it’s way more fun than the usual stuff like the hardware store ads.

Trust and Mistrust

In a capitalist economy everything is for sale. Love, for example. Possibly your very soul. So it is no surprise that trust is also for sale. We have to buy trust in order to perform beneficial economic transactions. Buyers and sellers, in any commerce beyond the lemonade stand, depend on “trusted” third parties to protect their interests. Banks, credit card companies, PayPal—you get the idea. Buying a house, for example, requires multiple layers of trust-protection: agents, escrow and title companies, lending institutions, inspectors, etc. Imagine what multi-billion dollar corporate-level transactions must require in terms of security and protection from fraud.

The problem with these third parties should be obvious to anyone who lived through 2008. Our most esteemed financial, banking, and accounting firms LIED to millions of investors about the value of their products and services. The result? A crash in wealth that hammered the bottom-dwellers in our social pyramid disproportionately. The “trust” so important in “trusted” third parties was eroded, perhaps for good. The problem of course is that there is no alternative. We have to have these institutions so that we can have commerce and we can pass our money around in transactions so that we can earn our livelihoods and pay our bills and buy our goods and services.

The other problem is one of centralization. A smaller and smaller number of entities increasingly have oversight over larger and larger concentrations of wealth. Any breach, via outside parties or (most likely) via internal corruption will impact everyone within that organization’s reach. That’s a lot of businesses, big and small, and a lot of people, rich and not-so-rich.  We saw that happen in 2008.

So it pays to be mistrustful. But since we need trust to continue our commerce, what’s to be done? Technology, perhaps, is providing a solution path. Computer science has long been fascinated by problems such as “double-spending.” How do you make sure that a digital transaction (like a credit card payment) is done only once, or, that once done, can’t be un-done or re-done? The dishonest buyer would like to buy something but then defraud the seller by reversing or withholding payment. The dishonest seller would like to defraud the buyer by a double-charge for the good or service or withhold such things entirely yet still receive payment.

Enter the blockchain. In this model, trust emerges via cryptography and a peer-to-peer network. Mistrust is taken as the modus operandi. Since we all mistrust each other, the only way to generate trust is to have an entirely open transaction ledger. Everyone can see that transactions are occurring and everyone can verify that such transactions are legitimate.

The first leg of such an apparatus is the cryptography part. We can encrypt our transactions so that we have privacy. After all, we don’t want everyone to know what our transactions are, just that they occurred and were accepted in the ledger as valid. Think about stock tickers: they tell us that shares were bought and sold and for what prices but not who did the buying and selling. Also, the transactions get lumped together into blocks, which are then encrypted, as well as stamped with date and time tags. As blocks get created, they are linked into chains, which are validated by their length and chronology. The longest chain is the newest version of the ledger, and the honest users of the network default to that version.

The second leg is the peer-to-peer or distributed computer network. Instead of a central authority, there is a majority consensus of users. If more nodes on the network containing the blockchain are honest, and follow the protocols to add transactions to the blocks and blocks to the chain, the result will be an honest, up-to-date, distributed shared ledger. In order for the dishonest nodes to compromise the network there would have to be a majority of dishonest nodes. As the blockchain is built, and tagged with time and date stamps as well as the digital “signatures” validating the encrypted information, it gets harder and harder to defraud. Each encrypted block requires significant computing resources to “crack” the code, and once cracked puts a break in the chain. The entire blockchain would then have to be rebuilt from the beginning. Thus the nodes (i.e., users) on the network can “see” the invalid blocks and reject that copy of the blockchain. The crooks would constantly be playing catch-up as the distributed nature of the blockchain means that the newest, longest version will always be the accepted one.

I know my half-assed description will make the computer scientists howl, and perhaps make my readers skip ahead, but it’s the best I can do so far. I’m still trying to wrap my head around these concepts.

What I find intriguing is this “wisdom of the crowds” approach. Instead of relying on gatekeepers, which is what our financial institutions have become, we rely on our individual self-interest. We are motivated by self-protection as we want to be able to do commerce with strangers over the internet. So we participate in the distributed ledger by hosting it on our computers and interacting with it according to the established schemes for performing the transactions. Note that one does not have to have the entire blockchain (think of it like a database) in memory, just the “headers” of the blocks, or the identifying labels. It’s like knowing you have a legitimate copy of today’s paper by checking the date and skimming a few headlines (I’d be checking the baseball scores!). You don’t have to have the whole paper or scan the articles.

Bitcoin is the most famous application of the blockchain. Users are rewarded with a digital currency, the bitcoin, for performing what are chain maintenance tasks. They check the blocks using “proof-of-work” algorithms that verify that they are tagged properly and in the chain in the proper sequence. Perhaps to have nodes join the network there would have to be some kind of transaction fee to provide additional motivation so that users would stay involved and continue to host the information.

Like any technology, hype precedes the reality, and we don’t know what’s to become of blockchains. But it seems likely to me that such things will be used for everything from storing your medical records to facilitating the oil futures market. Groups of mutually mistrustful people will want to do commerce together without the need to purchase oversight from a third party. It’s a very libertarian notion. Maybe we don’t need to be more trustworthy, we just need to recognize our basic lack of trustworthiness, and use high-tech “peer pressure” to keep us more honest than usual. Not a very idealized view of social interaction, but maybe one closer to our nature.

Where’s the beef?

One of the nice things about being an American is the abundance of food and food choices. We can be any kind of “-arian” or “-vore” we desire. We can customize our food to our particular needs. This depends, of course, on a resource-rich and energy-intensive industrial agriculture, a system that can produce massive surpluses so that costs are low and access to goods is easy. In fact, we are so wealthy in food that we can, in our disdain for modernity, refuse to buy such products and insist they be locally-sourced and that we buy them directly from farmers. Boutique foodstuffs are all the rage as we grow increasingly suspicious of our technological future. Somehow they connect us with the (mostly imaginary) wholesomeness of olden days. The rap on the new is that it isn’t as healthy, or as safe, as the way grandma used to do it.

Until the industrial revolutions of the Western world in the 18th and 19th centuries most people were farmers. These days very few people are farmers, unless you are in an under-developed country. In those places subsistence agriculture is still the way of things. Twenty-first century Americans have a romantic notion about family farming, imagining frolicking cows and happy harvest times. The reality is quite different as market fluctuations and the random nature of weather mean an unceasing uncertainty for the farmer. It’s hard work, too, even for people who have tractors and electricity and whatnot. The rise of corporate agriculture is concomitant with the rise in population. The neighborhood farm these days might have some really nice fresh greens but the “real meat” (i.e., a protein-rich food) is almost entirely created on a large scale.

Even vegans, who get protein from legumes and grains and such, eat more than they can grow in a backyard garden. And you don’t get your wheat, quinoa, or soybeans at the roadside stand. Those require a modern food production and distribution scheme just like beef, pork, and eggs. I’ve no doubt that some hardy folks who have the space and are willing to do the labor can live on what they grow on-site, but that’s not a model for seven-plus billion, especially when half live in cities. No, the future will be about providing high-quality food across the entire globe in more sustainable ways. Sustainable does not mean low energy or low resource use, however. All the modern means of ramping up food production will require lots of energy and other resources like water.

Sustainable might mean finding ways to recycle water, reduce the overall water footprint, or even using lower-grade water sources to grow crops, especially ones that people don’t eat like cotton. It might mean re-designing farms to allow more wildlife habitat, or fallow areas for recharging aquifers and replenishing soil nutrients. It might mean more precisely-timed fertilizer applications and sequestering of the runoff so it can be used again. Genetically-modified organisms will certainly play a role, especially drought-tolerant varieties and ones that can thrive in poor soils. Perhaps farmers will power their machinery with sunlight or biofuels grown in algae tanks. Technical advances in machinery and such will replace farmworkers in many applications freeing crop production from geo-politics. We hear a lot about sustainability but we don’t hear much about what it really means in terms of money, time, energy, and technology.

Transportation requires an enormous infrastructure of roads, railways, seaports, airports, as well as a fuel network (even if they are “carbon-neutral” fuels like hydrogen) to supply the vehicles. We grow enough food to feed everyone, we just can’t get it to them. Some places—like the US—have food gluts and waste countless kilograms of edible stuff. So any notion of a sustainable, eco-friendly agriculture will have to account for the distribution and transport sector as well, not to mention packaging, refrigeration, and storage to ensure quality and freshness.

Ultimately we will have to get over some of our old-fashioned ideas about what is edible. Have you heard of Quorn? It is a meat substitute, that is, a protein source, made from mycoprotein. The prefix myco- means fungus and that’s what it is, a fermented goop made in a tank composed mostly of the mushroom-like (perhaps mold-like is a better description) organism Fusarium venenatum. People eat the stuff, it’s an alternative for those who don’t want to eat meat. In some parts of the world people eat insects, grubs, or even worms. Fungus-cakes are pretty tame by comparison.

Beer is brewed in big vats under sterile conditions and requires fermentation so the idea of lab-created foodstuffs is not so radical. We make a lot of wholesome, desirable foods with industrial processes. Cheese, for example, is micro-biologically pure, as are pickles and sauerkraut. Sure, you can do this stuff at home or on the artisanal level, but most of us get these things in supermarkets and so are buying factory-made versions. You can find lots of stuff in the freezer aisles that are labeled, truthfully, as “natural” but that doesn’t mean hand-made in a kitchen. Only economies of scale make $3.99 Mexican dinners possible and only advances in packaging keep them fresh. A popular brand in our market is Amy’s, they advertise their commitment to eating well and all that but don’t show you pictures of the factory. I drove by it once, it is in southern Idaho near Pocatello. I don’t mean that as a criticism, I like their products and I hope the business thrives. I just don’t need the down-home momma’s-kitchen bullshit. I’m a big boy and I know that food in packages has to be manufactured, that is, industrially-processed.

I want to eat wild salmon, not farm-raised. But I’m not against salmon farming by any means. At some point wild salmon will be a boutique food and with today’s prices it is almost there. So we’ll have to switch. Maybe the GM salmon will win people over (I’ll eat it if ever given the chance) and that might help the wild populations by reducing demand. The most exciting thing in the new food world is lab-raised meat. There’s an outfit in Holland (where GM foods are outlawed) that is growing beef in a vat. Stem cells are taken from live cows and raised on nutrients in a petri dish and then scaled up to grow in larger vessels. It’s far from a commercial product, but it is a sign of things to come. People are squeamish, but they needn’t be. This stuff (called Mosa Meat) is actually REAL MEAT. It just grows outside the animal! Think of how much land can be saved from grazing, how many creatures that won’t have to be slaughtered, how much less water and energy will be needed, and how many tons of greenhouse gases can be reduced with this production method. I might really like my pasture-raised grass-fed local beef, but my many millions of hungry fellow world-citizens might have to settle for something else. The least we could do is make the alternative nutritious, edible, inexpensive, and available. And pretty soon most of us won’t know the difference even if we do pine away for the good old days of mold-encrusted carcasses hanging in warehouses.

 

Peak Oil

There was this smart guy some time ago who went by M. King Hubbert as his first name was Marion. He worked in the oil business, in both industry and government, and he took a look at reported oil reserves in the United States. He looked at production and consumption rates, did some cool depletion theory math, and came up with a graph* and a prediction. The graph was a bell-shaped curve and showed 1970 at the top. That got tagged “peak oil” and M. King Hubbert became a minor celebrity and semi-guru for the conservation crowd.

Hubbert was trying to tell us that knowing what we know about how much we have and how fast we are using it we should expect the resource to decline at such-and-such a rate. And he was right. US oil production did peak about 1970 and declined roughly as predicted. Then the Alaska fields came on line and that added a bump to the descending slope but that peaked, too. Now we have the so-called “tight oil” that has shoved Hubbert’s peak off the graph entirely and built its own bell-shaped curve** that’s still, at least according to some, climbing.

Hubbert knew that there were other oil fields yet to be discovered. And he knew about hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and shale oil and tar sands and all that stuff. So he didn’t say we’d run out of oil, just that with existing technologies and present proven oil reserves this is when scarcity will hit and when we’ll have to do something about it. He was concerned with oil production as it was, not what it might be down the road. Hubbert thought nuclear energy, breeder reactors specifically, would replace much of the fossil fuel-based power grid. With widespread adoption of solar energy as well he  believed we would not need to fear “peak oil” as there would be much less demand for that resource.

Alas, he was wrong about that. Nuclear power is on the wane and cheap natural gas has kept the fossil-fuel energy business going. Solar is making inroads, along with other alternative sources, but the primary need is still for fossil fuels. Fracking and other technologies have created a new oil boom in the US. And it’s not just the money—it’s the geopolitics. Being an oil exporter now gives the US more clout internationally and counterbalances OPEC. The United States, mostly because of the Permian Basin in Texas, has either tied or passed Saudi Arabia as not only the number one producer of crude, but having the largest proven reserves as well.

This is not to say Hubbert’s peak is dead. All resources get depleted. And the rest of the world is playing catch-up to us and to Western Europe and to other energy-intensive places like Japan and South Korea. If you want all the things we take for granted like hot-and-cold running water, indoor toilets, electric appliances, sturdy climate-controlled dwellings, mobile phones, cars, planes, and Amazon Prime, just to list a few, you have to have lots of energy. Americans use about 100 quadrillion BTUs of energy every year; by comparison Mexico (one-fourth the size of the lower 48, one-third the population) uses less than one-tenth of that.

What Hubbert’s peak has come to mean is the end of cheap and easy oil. The low-hanging fruit has been picked, now we have to get out the ladders and the bucket-trucks. As long as the technology advances the costs of extraction can be manageable. This assumes demand will continue to grow, of course, and with hundreds of millions of people eager to improve their standard of living it’s a good bet. I suppose we could go to third-world countries and tell them “no, don’t do it!” and make them go to a sustainable solar-and-wind economy without the conspicuous consumption and high living that industrial-technological capitalism can create. We can rescue the poor devils from our own excesses, and get them to walk to work and eat organic and be content with less stuff.

I don’t think that’s going to fly. Poor folks look at rich folks and go “I want that” and who can blame them?

Down there in Texas they are cranking out so much new oil that they’ve got a pipeline bottleneck. They can’t get the stuff to the refineries or the tankers fast enough. Naturally a lot of money is flowing into the shale business as companies are borrowing enormous amounts to expand production. There’s a genuine fear that many of the players will never generate enough income, especially once that peak-to-depletion thing kicks in, to ever pay off their debts. The cash is coming in but can’t be sustained. As the resource declines the cost goes up so people buy less or switch to another source. If new reserves come into production, the glut lowers the price and thus the income needed to maintain the business drops as well. Anything can happen in the future, as we know, and economics is not physics. Disruptions to the system from unknown or unpredictable places could turn the whole oil market topsy-turvy. Natural disasters, famines, and epidemics are always lurking, and we humans have a knack for getting into scrapes with each other over the smallest of things. War, even on the limited scale of most of our current conflicts, can change the international landscape dramatically and impact global commerce.

So I stay away from predictions. It’s pretty obvious that we will continue to demand energy so that we can live our accustomed way. We might recycle, but we still drive and take hot showers and all that. Hydrocarbon resources are virtually unlimited if you consider all the known reserves offshore and whatnot. The gigantic quantities of natural gas contained in the continental shelves in the form of methane clathrates may be the biggest hydrocarbon resource of all, we have yet to tap that one. We have only scratched the surface, literally speaking. The limit for fossil fuels ultimately might not be economic, but rather physical. Global warming might not be enough, the other pollution effects are certainly significant too, what with air and water contamination through production, transport, refining, consuming, and disposing of petrochemicals. So we may have to switch just because it gets too bad to do otherwise.

Ideally we’d start on some of those transitions sooner rather than later. In a capitalist system you have to have an economic incentive to do something so I suppose we’d better figure out a way to grow our portfolios by banning fracking. Maybe all those smart kids out there will come up with some cool solutions, or maybe we’ll just muddle along like always and stumble upon an occasional breakthrough. In the meantime, enjoy the view from the peak!

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peak oil

 

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current oil

 

DIY GMO

There’s a company out there called ODIN that sells mail-order do-it-yourself genetic engineering kits. I used to joke about this stuff, but like a lot of stuff I used to joke about—home cannabis delivery, for example—it’s now true. The basic kit allows the home science enthusiast to modify bacteria, specifically to cause a mutation at one gene and change one particular amino acid for another. May not seem like much, but that change will allow the bacteria to survive in a media that would normally kill it. All for only $159!

People are debating whether or not this is a good thing. I live in a country that has 300 million guns in circulation, and I’m not counting the police and military. What’s a few home GMO experiments compared to that? Or compared to the tens of thousands of nuclear weapons in the world? Let’s keep our dangers in perspective. The coolest kit (only 80 bucks) allows you to make fluorescent yeast. As a brewer, I can appreciate this one. I think it would be useful to learn how much yeast remains in my final product. Certainly a significant amount remains in suspension even if the beer looks clear, I wonder if a fluorescing species (visible under blacklight) would be detectable. The neat thing about this kit is that the user supplies the yeast, it can come from anywhere, commercial sources or wild ones.

All of this is the result of CRISPR. You may have seen the acronym (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) out there and you say (“crisper”) just like it looks. Genetics folks seem to like such names, we’ve got DNA and RNA of course, not to mention GMOs, and there’s cool stuff like SNP (“snip” or Single Nucleotide Polymorphism) and PAGE (Polyacrylamide Gel Electrophoresis) as well. In science, things need labels. And there’s more stuff out there every day and the labels pile up!

CRISPR is something that bacteria do. It’s part of nature. Humans “discovered” it, that is, they saw something happen and gave it a name. Turns out bacteria aren’t so dumb. They get attacked by viruses all the time and they’ve evolved some defense mechanisms, kind of like our own immune system. They stash little sequences of genetic info (the CRISPR thing) in their DNA that “remind” them of when they were attacked before and what they had to do to defend themselves. Usually they made some protein that cleaved up the attacking viral DNA, so the little sequences encode for that.

Turns out the human lab geniuses figured out how to copy the bacterial technique. Nature has been around longer than mere humans, it pays to study what other organisms do to survive. They’ve been doing some things right for some time now, and we are very recent interlopers on the planet by comparison, so studying bacteria can teach us a lot.

Of course the primary motivation for this research is medical. Humans would like to be able to treat genetic diseases at the source. CRISPR makes lab work quicker and cheaper, thus you may see a lot of hollering about how we’ll use the new technology to cure us all of what ails us. Naturally you can use the techniques on plants, and we’ll get some more hollering about how we’ll feed the world with the amazing new plants we can create. Like all technology, hype comes along for the ride.

There will be all the other hollering about playing god, too. Messing with stuff that shouldn’t be messed with. Dr. Frankenstein in a corporate lab re-designing life. I figure DNA is about as natural and organic a substance as anyone could want and I’m a natural, organic kind of guy so I don’t worry about such things. Much. People are certainly capable of doing great harm to each other and to all the other living things, of that I’ve no doubt. But playing with live ammo is what we do. The cave-people harnessed fire, and that’s scary stuff. We still burn our buildings down on a regular basis, and we’ve been doing this fire thing for a long time! We buzz around in combustion-engine metal behemoths with tanks of explosive liquid under our asses, on sea, land, and air, all the goddamn time, and hardly take notice any more.

I don’t know if we’ll get anything useful from the bio-hackers and others who use the kits. There’s another one where you get to genetically modify frogs. Seriously. I’m not sure what you get, and they do say it’s a “beta” version, so I doubt you can do much damage. But it seems a wee bit hinky. The kit comes with “cages” and “Benzocaine anesthetic.” I’m starting to feel sorry for the frogs. I guess I’m OK with bacteria and yeast on my lab table and I’m not yet ready for creatures with eyes and legs.

But it’s coming. Cloning was all the rage a while back and I’ve always figured it would make a big comeback with pets. Little Fido died? No problem, we saved some of his DNA and we can grow a new one. As soon as some rich celebrity gets his or her beloved barker back from the dead everyone will want to do it.

Same with medical advances. If some blowhard anti-technology Senator gets his grandkid cured of a terrible disease you know he’ll change his tune about bio-engineering and so will the rest of us. Who’s going to argue with saving little Jimmy?

We put all sorts of scary genetic material into our bodies. How about kombucha? Do you know where that fungus came from? Or what organisms it is made of? Certainly not all of them. No one does. Same goes for sourdough bread! Brewers in Belgium open the roofs of the brewhouses and let wild yeast and bacteria infect their beers. They do this on purpose, for flavor. If some day there’s a CRISPR in my crisper I figure it can’t be any worse than that.