Saturday, January 17, 2009

Colourful pigs evolved through farming, not nature

Pigs evolved bright coat colours rapidly after domestication thanks to the human a penchant for novelty, a new gene analysis suggests.

Farmers selected and bred the brightly coloured pigs to distinguish them from their brown and black wild cousins and probably also because they preferred the unusual colours.

At the other extreme, the gene analysis shows that wild pigs today are evolving through natural selection to maintain camouflage colours to escape detection by predators.

"Every time a gene mutation arose in the wild causing coat colour to change, it was eliminated immediately," says Greger Larson of Durham University, UK, and joint leader of the analysis with Leif Andersson of Uppsala University in Sweden. "So if a black piglet showed up, that was the one picked off by a predator."

Pig a colour
Domestication overrode natural selection with artificial selection from around 10,000 years ago, when humans began to domesticate pigs and other animals such as dogs, favouring animals with mutations resulting in brightly coloured coats. "What it comes down to is the real human penchant for novelty," says Larson.

To establish how colours might have arisen in pigs, the researchers analysed DNA from 68 domestic pigs of 51 breeds, and 15 wild boar. All samples were from animals in Europe and Asia.

In each sample, they examined variations in the gene melanocortin receptor-1 (MC1R) in melanocyte skin cells, which orchestrates the manufacture of melanin pigments. In each species, the gene governs coat colour by dictating the balance between production of dark coloured eumelanin and red-yellow coloured pheomelanin.

They found about 10 mutations in the domestic and wild pigs. But the mutations in the wild pigs were all "silent", insofar as they had no physical effect on the protein produced and therefore on the colour of the animal's coat. This shows that in the wild, colour change was selected against to avoid losing camouflage. "When you mess with the gene, you get over-expression of dark or light melanins, which alters the colour," Larson explains.

Tickled pink
By contrast, all the mutations in the domestic pigs altered coat colour. Black pigs overproduce eumelanin, for example, and pink pigs stop making melanin altogether, resulting in a "default" pink colour.

Some of the domesticated pigs had as many as three mutations in their MC1R, each new mutation adding something that couldn't have arisen without the previous ones. For example, in pigs which are pink with black spots, for example, three mutations are needed, and the mutation causing the black spots had to have come last, following on from mutations which gave the pink background colour.

This provided the clinching evidence that the coat colours were selected for after domestication, says Larson, because pink pigs wouldn't have survived long enough in the wild to have allowed the third mutation to arise. "It shows there was a big difference in the selection regimes practiced by Mother Nature and by humans," says Larson.

The analysis also revealed that black pigs in Europe owe their blackness to different mutations from the black pigs in Asia. "It proves independent domestication of pigs on two continents," says Larson.

David Fisher, who studies melanocytes as director of the melanoma programme at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, says the study was sound. "It's not difficult to imagine the potential advantages during animal domestication of being able to have an easily recognisable body feature, such as coat colour," he says.

Friday, January 16, 2009

E-waste looms behind solar-power boom

Imagine a manufacturer that took back its products after 25 years of use.

That's exactly what watchdog group Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition is recommending that the solar industry do in a white paper released on Wednesday. Solar is a renewable source of energy, and solar panels don't pollute when they are generating electricity. But the upstream process of making solar panels involves a number of toxic chemicals.

Most solar cells are made out of silicon, the same material embedded in billions of electronic chips. As a result, the burgeoning solar photovoltaics (PV) industry faces an electronic-waste problem.

The solar array at Applied Material's California headquarters. Where will the panels go after 25 years?

In its white paper, the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition recommends that manufacturers phase out harmful chemicals while it seeks out more benign materials and develops "environmentally sustainable practices." If the fast-growing solar business doesn't plan ahead, it risks "repeating the mistakes made by the microelectronics industry," according to the coalition.

"The electronics industry's lack of environmental planning and oversight resulted in widespread toxic chemical pollution that caused death and injury to workers and people living in nearby communities. The high-tech industry's legacy now includes the growing global tide of toxic electronic waste, or e-waste," the report says.

A report from China by The Washington Post brought attention to this solar-waste issue to many people for the first time. A reporter visited a village where toxic silicon tetrachloride, a byproduct of silicon cell manufacturing, was dumped, making the land unsuitable for growing and posing a health risk to residents.

The coalition recommends that manufacturers test materials for toxicity before they are used in manufacturing and to step up take-back programs so that materials can be recycled.

By keeping solar panels out of the waste stream, municipalities can eliminate health and environmental risks, such as water contamination. Silicon-based panels typically last 20 to 25 years.

Alternative thin-film solar cells using different materials pose their own health challenges.

For example, First Solar (which has a recycling program), which is considered the cost leader in solar power, makes cells from cadmium telluride. Although the toxicity of the cadmium telluride is not well understood, there is risk of exposure to toxic cadmium compounds during the manufacturing process, according to the report.


Solar power and e-waste
CNET News reporter Martin LaMonica tells CNET News editor Leslie Katz what kind of toxins are produced by solar panels, and what the recommendations are for dealing with them.
Download mp3 (2.62MB)

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Coke's Big Recycling Plant

Roughly 75 percent of plastic soda and water bottles end up in landfills, by some estimates. What a waste. We could argue about whether to blame lazy consumers, governments that fail to promote recycling, or the beverage industry. We could debate whether bottle bills will solve the problem. (They won't, by themselves.) We could try to persuade people to give up bottled water. (They won't.) Or we could look for market-based solutions, and see if they have the potential to scale.

That's what the The Coca-Cola Co. is doing. This week, Coke stages a grand opening for the world's largest bottle-to-bottle recycling plant in Spartanburg, S.C. (The plant's been running at less than full capacity for months.) The facility is a $60 million joint venture of Coke and the United Resource Recovery Corp. (URRC), which calls itself the world leader in transforming waste bottles into new ones. URRC has a patented process for recyling food and beverage containers made of polyethylene terephthalate, or PET.

The plant will have the capacity, when fully operational, to produce 100 million pounds of recycled PET plastic chips—enough to produce 2 billion 20-ounce bottles of Coke or Dasani or whatever.

It's a small step toward the goal of sustainable consumption—the idea the we can buy and consume stuff in a ways that don't degrade the environment or create waste. Coke has said that it ultimately wants to recycle or reuse all of its plastic bottles and cans.

I spoke earlier today with Scott Vitters, the director of sustainable packaging for Coke. Scott is passionate about the environment, albeit in a geeky way, and he's proud of the plant, which has been in the works for years.

"It's an important milestone for us," he said.

The best thing about the plant is that it is intended to make money for Coke and URRC. That means that the project can be duplicated elsewhere.

Here's how it will work, as explained by Scott: A separate recycling company, led by Coca-Cola Enteprises, the world's biggest Coke bottler (don't ask me to explain the interconnected Coke system), will recover PET from a geographic area stretching from the northeast to Florida. The used PET bottles will come from its own manufacturing system, from government recycling centers and from high-profile venues like NASCAR events, college football stadiums and the House of Representatives. As the "official recycler" at the Democratic national convention in Denver, Coca Cola Recycling even collected waste from the arena known as the Pepsi Center. "All that material went back into our bottles—gleefully," Scott says.

Another source for feedstock is a Coke-backed startup called RecycleBank, which rewards consumers who recycle more and throw away less. VC firm Kleiner Perkins is also an investor in Recycle Bank.

Getting enough feedstock into the plant is crucial to its success. "That traditionally has been a major hurdle to recycling," Scott said.

The plant will produce a plastic chip, which will be sold to yet another Coke-backed company. Most of the chips will be refashioned into plastic bottles. Coke also makes T-shirts, tote bags, fleeces and other stuff from recycled PET, mostly as a way to encourage consumers to recycle and burnish its own image.

How will the new plant make money? "Explaining the economics around recycling is always an adventure," Scott said. "You have to keep in mind different things. One is the evolution of the technology. This is about the fourth generation of recycling technology, and earlier generations were costly and environmentally ineffective. Second is the question of feedstocks, and how much they cost. Third is the cost of virgin PET. Today, that's dropping."

In other words, it's hard to know today whether the investment will pay off. "The driver for this program was environmental," Scott said. "It's not going to make anyone wildly wealthy. But we're looking to turn a profit, long term."

That's good news, for obvious reasons. If the Spartanburg plant makes money, more will be built. Right now, there's a need for a similar plant in the Midwest. Plastic bottles that are recycled near the west coast wind up in China, of all places, since it's cheap to send them over there on container ships that have delivered Chinese imports to west coast ports.

None of this is truly sustainable. Not even close. Think of the trucks, powered by gasoline, moving all of those bottles around. I didn't think to ask Scott how the plant is is powered, but chances are it's operated by electricity made by burning coal.

But Coca-Cola, to its credit, is doing its part to solve a big and needless waste problem. Now we need governments to do more to promote curbside recycling–maybe with "pay as you throw" programs, that charge wasteful people more money. And, of course, we need consumers to think twice before throwing a bottle in the trash or, worse, by the side of the road.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Want to support GREEN this football season?

Check out ;


Since initiating the GO GREEN program in 2003, the Philadelphia Eagles have made enormous strides in reducing the organization's impact on the environment by:

Running on 100% clean energy after purchasing 14 million kilowatt-hours of renewable wind energy.

Replacing over 1 million plastic cups annually with cups made from a corn-based material, eliminating the consumption of over 14 tons of plastic.

Substituting approximately 16.6 tons annually of additional plastic, foam and paper flatware and dinnerware (plates, bowls, etc.) with sustainable post-consumer product alternatives like corn-based bio-plastics.

Implementing energy conservation programs reducing electricity consumption at Lincoln Financial Field by more than 33%.

Replacing plastic bottles with aluminum bottles which has less of an environmental impact when recycled.

Recycling over 175 tons of waste, 19% of refuse.

Installing three state-of-the-art solar panels that track the sun throughout the day and produce 10kW of energy.

Converting to 100% post-consumer recycled paper for all soft-tissue products, which will yield an additional annual savings of 10 tons of paper, or about 170 trees.
Implementing an employee reimbursement program to encourage employees to switch from conventional power to wind energy. The participating employees are eliminating the emissions of 283 tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year.

Recycled over 550 tons of mixed metal, plastic, paper and cardboard.
Reducing the printing of the team's Media Guide from 12,000 to 5,000 copies; saving 5,800 pounds of paper.

All of the Eagles GO GREEN efforts since 2003 equate the above link for more

HVAC boot cleared of Asbestos in Los Angeles