petrie dishSYNTH-ETHICS: Scientists have yet to actually create synthetic life, but the burgeoning field of synthetic biology already requires firm federal oversight, according to advisers convened by President Obama. The president called for a panel report last May after researchers, headed by genome pioneer Craig Venter, wrote in the journal Science that they had brought bacteria to life using a man-made genetic blueprint. The breakthrough was not truly synthetic life, but it was certainly a step in that direction. While researchers were quick to point out the many benefits of the breakthrough — such as the potential to provide humanity with cheaper drugs, fuel and food — some environmentalists feared what might happen if the technology got into the wrong hands. Not only could synthetic life be a danger to natural life if it found its way into an ecosystem, but it could also be used to create biological weapons or super plagues. To safeguard against misuse of the potential new technology, the president's panel made 18 regulatory recommendations, including a dozen calling for vigilant White House monitoring and oversight of the field, starting with a funding review by 2012. The panel also recommended that all scientists in the field receive mandatory ethics training. "People are always surprised when they learn the government isn't doing this already," said David Rejeski of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "If we followed these recommendations, we would eliminate a lot of the nasty surprises for a lot of technologies." (Sources: Reuters, USA Today)

SUNBELT: The Obama administration has singled out six key Southwestern states for the development of new solar power facilities as part of a plan to speed up advancement of the country's renewable energy industry. The plan identified 24 solar energy zones located in California, Nevada, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona with the highest potential for solar capture. Overall, 21 million acres of public land has been proposed for the project. "The steps taken today help ensure that the United States will lead the world in energy technologies critical for meeting our energy goals and for sustaining economic growth," said Henry Kelly with the Department of Energy. The amount of electricity that could be generated by the sun on all designated lands in the six states could total 24,000 megawatts over 20 years, according to Bob Abbey, who heads the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management. The solar industry has praised the long overdue plan. "This announcement builds on the solar industry's momentum over the past year, surpassing all of last year's growth through the third quarter, as well as the approval of the first eight utility-scale solar projects on public lands," said Rhone Resch, the head of the Solar Energy Industries Association. The proposal will be open for public comment for 90 days and a final report is expected in fall 2011. (Sources: Scientific American, Huffington Post)

MUMMY FOREST: Researchers on a camping vacation in the Canadian Arctic have discovered a whole mummified forest previously unknown to science. The ancient stumps were found on frigid Ellesmere Island, a place devoid of living trees. Research scientist Joel Barker of Ohio State University was understandably surprised when he stumbled upon remnants of the forest. "At one point I crested a small ridge and the cliff face below me was just riddled with wood," he recalled. Barker and fellow researchers hope to study the archaic wood for clues about how climate change has affected the arctic ecosystem in the past, and to glean knowledge about how global warming might impact the Arctic today. They have already discovered that the forest was buried by an avalanche 2 million to 8 million years ago, and that it was made up primarily of birch, larch, spruce and pine trees. Although about a dozen other such frozen forests exist in the Canadian Arctic, this new site is the farthest north. The next step is to examine tree rings to better understand how past climate conditions stressed plant life, they said. (Source: Associated Press

BERM BUM: The big set of sand berms erected by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal to protect the coastline at the height of the BP oil spill are now being called a colossal $200 million waste of money, according to a presidential commission. The commission's report criticized Jindal's berms as "underwhelmingly effective and overwhelmingly expensive," saying they stopped only a "minuscule" amount of oil from coming ashore. The governor ordered the berms built despite the steadfast objections of scientists and federal agencies at the time, and was vocal in his criticisms of the Obama administration's own efforts to protect the Gulf Coast. Officials now estimate that the berms stopped a mere 1,000 barrels of oil from the spill. By contrast, more than 800,000 barrels were captured at the wellhead, roughly 270,000 barrels were burned off by Coast Guard vessels, and skimming operations recovered at least 34 million gallons of oil-water mixture. "$220 million for a spill response measure that trapped not much more than 1,000 barrels of oil is not a compelling cost-benefit tradeoff," the commission staff wrote. Jindal fired back, calling the report "partisan revisionist history at taxpayer expense." The report acknowledged that the berms could potentially have a positive impact on Louisiana’s degraded coastline, but said that issue should be considered separately from the berms' value as an oil spill response. (Sources: New York Times, Huffington Post)

— Today's Daily Briefing was reported by Bryan Nelson. Russell McLendon is out on assignment.

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Photo (bacteria): Umberto Salvagnin/Flickr

Photo (solar cells): Scott Robinson/Flickr

Photo (petrified wood): Catchpenny/Flickr

Photo (berm construction): Louisiana GOHSEP/Flickr

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Weekend Briefing 12/17/2010
Synthetic life gets federal oversight, Obama eyes Southwest for solar, mummified forest provides climate clues, and more.