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SMC Heads-Up: Freshwater, blood alcohol, gene tech

SMC Heads-Up: Freshwater bottom lines, blood alcohol and new gene tech

Issue 256 8-14 Nov 2013

New push on freshwater reform
How much should we raise the bar for the worst waterways in the country?

This is question the Ministry for the Environment says it has set out to answer with its newly proposed "national bottom lines" for water quality.

A discussion document released Thursday provides enforceable numerical limits for the first time for a selection of indicators of ecosystem and human health in lakes and rivers. Around 60 scientists were involved in expert review panels that worked out the finer details, which were run past end user groups to test feasibility before being finalised.

As currently proposed, the bottom lines provide for:
• 80% of freshwater species protected from impacts on growth
• less that 5% risk of E. coli infection from wading or boating
• moderate impacts from excess plant and algal growth
• moderate stress on aquatic life from dissolved oxygen levels
• periodic nuisance blooms; low risk of health effects from cyanobacteria
Nationally, there are 26 monitored lakes that fail to meet one or more of the bottom lines. As much as 10% of river sites may breach bottom lines in some regions, such as the Manawatu-Wanganui.

In places where water quality exceeds the bottom lines, councils will still be required "to maintain or improve the overall water quality" within their region. Exceptions to the bottom lines may be granted for existing infrastructure, such as dams and legacy sites, where these are deemed to have "significant economic benefits" that would not be realised otherwise.

Freshwater scientists involved in the review process have had a largely positive response to the outcomes.

"The report is a culmination of many people's efforts over the last two years and represents an important step in the plan for improved freshwater management that was devised by the Land and Water Forum, said Dr Roger Young, freshwater ecologist at the Cawthron Institute.

"I'm particularly pleased to see recognition of the strong connection between what happens on the land and potential effects on the coastal environment"

However, other freshwater experts who did not participate in the science review have questioned the absence of key indicators for rivers, saying that appropriate measures to protect rivers were "completely absent."

"There is extensive evidence that nitrogen limits, phosphorus limits, MCI (biological invertebrate health measure), IBI (fish health measure), and deposited sediment are important environmental bottom lines in rivers, but where are they in the mix?" asked Dr Russell Death, Massey University.

Prof Jenny Webster-Brown, Director of Waterways Centre for Freshwater Management welcomed the numerical limits as a "major step forward," but cautioned against an "alarming trend towards complexity"

"Relatively simple concepts are being made more obscure through the use of unfamiliar terminology. Referring to 'water management units' in place of water bodies or catchments, for example, does nothing to make this process more transparent to the communities involved in the decision-making processes."

She also highlighted the lack of nutrient limits for rivers and the omission of limits for trace toxic contaminants that she says are "not currently effectively controlled."

Read full comments from freshwater experts on our website.

Drink drive limit decrease proposed
The Government plans to lower the legal blood alcohol limit from 80 to 50 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood for drivers aged over 20.
The new regime will impose civil infringements -- a $200 fine and gain 50 demerit points -- on drivers with between 50 and 80mg/100mls of blood. The new legislation is to be put before parliament before the end of the year.

Monday's announcement came hot on the heels of Campbell Live's series examining the issue of drink driving limits.

However the issue of 'how much is too much?' is by no means a new one; the Science Media Centre covered this issue closely when it was raised in 2010. You can listen to playback of a media briefing held at the time here. And a free-to-use infographic that has stood the test of time is also available on the SMC website.

It is estimated that under the new limits, in a two hour period men could consume three to four standard drinks, and women two to three drinks, and still be able to legally drive. This is of course dependent on a number of factors such as height and weight (as the Dominion Post pointed out, Kim Dotcom could drink between 15-26 standard drinks and still be allowed behind the wheel under the proposed limits).
Dr Allan Stowell, Science leader, Alcohol Analysis Unit, ESR, commented to the SMC:

"I do not believe the law will penalise "moderate social drinkers".

"For example, a male of average build drinking two to three glasses of wine during a leisurely dinner, or three to four small bottles of beer during a social gathering lasting about two hours is highly unlikely to exceed 50 mg/100mL at the end of the drinking period.

"Women need to be a little more careful, but a woman of average build would be highly unlikely to exceed 50 mg/dL after consumption of two to three standard drinks, over a two hour period."

Read more expert commentary on the Science Media Centre website.
What was big in science news this week...
Hot new weed control, the unstable Port Hills, blood splatter, 1080 miss-fire and orange rivers.
'Crispr' gene tech: hype or hope?
The current front page of UK newspaper The Independent sports an article headlined 'The Next Genetic Revolution', exclusively detailing 'Crispr' - a novel technique for editing DNA.

This technique, according to the article, could be the key step in developing cures for AIDS, cancer and inherited disorders. But do the facts back up the hype?

The Crispr technique is an enzyme-based method for editing nucleotides (the A, C, T and Gs of DNA) in a "phenomenally precise" manner. Highly esteemed scientists quoted in the article, such as Nobel Prize winner Craig Mellor, herald the bacteria-derived method as the most advanced technology available to correct DNA and provide solutions to the numerous diseases that have their origins in human genome.

You can find a truncated version of the story on the The Independent site as well as further background and a video animation.

Outside of the The Independent's multi-page 'exclusive' reaction was more mixed. Our colleagues at the UK SMC collected the following expert commentary.

Professor Robin Lovell Badge, MRC National Institute for Medical Research, said:

"There is much deserved excitement in the basic science community about the CRISPR/Cas9 methods, which provide very efficient tools to understand gene function. Moreover, I can see why this excitement has spread to those keen to apply the techniques to cure genetic disease. But the hype needs to be tempered with a little caution.

"Although remarkably efficient compared to other techniques, the genetic changes introduced by the CRISPR technique are not always as perfect as designed and on occasion it could introduce problems that are just as worse as the one being corrected.

Professor George Church, Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, said:

"Talking about the future is better than letting it sneak up on us. We need to do more of this or we will be left with very limited vocabulary in the space between positive and negative hype."

You can read further expert comments on the Science Media Centre website.
Policy news and developments

Labelling research: Research has been commissioned to assess consumer understanding and the impact of nutrition labelling on food.

Pest control: The EPA has approved a new application to import and manufacture two sodium nitrite based substances to be used as a bait to control possums and feral pigs.

Snapper chair: Sir Ian Barker has been appointed to Chair the new Snapper 1 Strategy Group, which will work on a long term plan to manage the fishery.
A new crop of science film makers
In the latest Sciblogs Podcast, host Lindsey Horne talks to four film makers who have completed their studies at the University of Otago's Center for Science Communication.

The students recently saw their films premiere at the Regent theatre in Dunedin. Horne asks them how they tackled the science communication aspect of film making, tackling often controversial issues to give society a better understanding of the issues.

Visit Sciblogs to listen to the podcast.

Quoted: Publicaddress

""We have lived through 100 years of misery with Big Tobacco. Why on earth would we want to repeat another 100 or more years with Big Marijuana?"

Kevin Sabet, Director of the Drug Policy Institute
at the University of Florida

New from the SMC

Experts Respond:
Drink driving: Experts provide some context around the Government proposal to lower the legal blood alcohol limit for driving.

CCAMLR reserve bid: Efforts to reach an international agreement establishing a Marine Protected Area in Antarctica's Ross Sea have failed for the third time in a row.

Freshwater discussion: The Government has proposed a new set of national 'bottom lines' for freshwater ecosystem and human health values.

Reflections on Science:

Heated correspondence: The Gisborne Herald makes a call on publishing letters from climate change sceptics.

Sciblogs highlights

Some of the highlights from this week's Sciblogs posts:

What is a standard alcoholic drink? 'It's a nightmare, that's what it is', writes Anna Sandiford as she points out the potential pitfalls in measuring one's drinking.
Forensic Scientist

After the wheel was it all downhill? Robert Hickson After inventing the wheel, why did it take 4000 years to create a wheelbarrow? Robert Hickson looks back over the greatest hits of innovation.

More women injured in quakes - In a guest post, the University of Otago, Canterbury's Kim Thomas notes some intersting research in the wake of the quakes
Kidney Punch

Research highlights
Some of the major research papers that made headlines this week.

Please note: hyperlinks point, where possible, to the relevant abstract or paper.

The oldest ice core:
How far into the past can ice-core records go? Scientists have now identified regions in Antarctica they say could store information about Earth's climate and greenhouse gases extending as far back as 1.5 million years, almost twice as old as the oldest ice core drilled to date.
Climate of the Past

Reviewing Chelyabinsk: The asteroid that exploded violently above the Russian city of Chelyabinsk on 15 February caused the largest airburst on the planet in the last 100 years. Thanks to recordings from cell phones, video cameras and other devices, researchers have been able to gather an unprecedented amount of data on the asteroid - it's location, speed, composition and the damage it caused. Their findings establish a benchmark for such impacts, and will help astronomers to understand other near-Earth objects.

Robotics: A special issue of Science Translational Medicine this week covers the cutting edge of robotics and neuroprosthetics. New research reveals the first two-arm virtual robot controlled by a monkey via brain-machine interface and another article describes recovered neural control of bladder function in paraplegic rats. Related perspective articles also cover neuroprosthetic advances in walking and vision and the transition of this technology from lab to the clinic.
Science Translational Medicine

'Fountain-of-youth' gene repairs tissue: Why do young animals recover from tissue damage better than adults? A new study revealed that a gene called Lin28a, which is very active in embryos but not in adults, enhances tissue repair after injury when reactivated in adult mice. The findings open up new avenues for the treatment of injuries and degenerative diseases in adult humans.
Romance beats racism online: Receiving a romantic overture from someone of a different race seems to be all that is needed to overcome a bias against interracial exchanges on online dating sites, suggests US research analysing over 125,000 users of dating site OKCupid. Although users were initially unlikely to interact with users from a different racial background, they were happy to reciprocate romantic overtures across racial boundaries then went on to initiate further interracial exchanges than they would have done otherwise.

Upcoming sci-tech events
For these and more upcoming events, and more details about them, visit the SMC's Events Calendar.

General Practice and Rural Health 30th Anniversary Celebration and Symposium - 8-9 November, Dunedin.

Kiwicon - Computer security and hacker conference - 9-10 November, Wellington.
2013 Massey Vice-Chancellor's Symposium Showcase - 15 November, Wellington, Palmerston North and Auckland.

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