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January 19, 2011

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Challenging the frontiers of science

IN the past decade, international efforts in fields such as global warming, renewable energy, gene therapy, stem cell research and genetically modified crops have brought hope and disappointment. Wu Xia and Wang Yanhong report.

Renewable energy

Bolstered by strong government support in big economies, solar power, wind power and biomass energy production have been growing fast at an annual rate of 10 to 60 percent in the past decade. But their share in total energy consumption remains low. In 2008, about 19 percent of global final energy consumption came from renewables. But, excluding hydroelectricity and traditional biomass, which is mainly used for heating, the share for non-traditional renewable energy was only 2.7 percent.

The production cost for non-traditional renewable energy is still higher than that for fossil fuels, which still dominate the energy markets. This results in non-traditional renewable energy being potentially squeezed out of the market when oil prices fall. Government subsidies, which have been fueling the renewable energy sector through its infancy, might gradually be phased out. When that happens, renewable energy must gain a footing in the energy market by a lower and more competitive price.

Technological breakthroughs are still underway. For the past decade, the production cost for silicon used in solar panels remains high.

Extracting ethanol fuel from crops is said to potentially drive up crop prices while still taking a toll on the environment in terms of land, water, and pesticides.

Laboratory tests show that electricity can be produced from directly breaking down fibers in agricultural wastes or even harvested directly from algae's photosynthesis process, but these new technologies are not yet commercialized.

The long-awaited enterprise of nuclear fusion power plants, headed by the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor project, has been slow in implementing its agenda. Whether the non-traditional renewable energy sector can survive without government subsidies and compete with fossil fuels remains to be seen in the next 10 years.

Genome and medicine

Much progress has been made in the past decade in deciphering the hereditary script of the human race. In June 2000, a working draft of the human genome was released by two rival groups from the Human Genome Project, a US$3 billion international collaboration.

It began in 1990, with then President Bill Clinton saying it would "revolutionize the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of most, if not all, human disease."

The mapping of the human genome has improved tremendously in the past decade. But despite some findings of the genetic roots of cancer and immune deficiencies, the genetics of most diseases are more complex than anticipated.

The fledgling field of gene therapy has yielded success as setbacks in clinical trials occasionally put research on hold. Scientists and doctors will have to solve safety issues for gene therapy to enter mainstream medicine.

"The consequences for clinical medicine have thus far been modest," said Francis Collins, director of US National Human Genome Research. "It is fair to say that the Human Genome Project has not yet directly affected the health care of most individuals."

Genetic engineering

The problems facing stem cell research are different: Not only is the secret of life a formidable challenge, but so is the mixed public opinion on using fertilized human embryos in laboratories.

Scientists hope that stem cells, which have the potential to turn into the more than 200 cell types in the body, can work as a super "repair kit" for the body. The use of stem cells derived from a patient's own body would also avoid the risk of rejection.

But research efforts have been thwarted by controversies over the creation, use and destruction of fertilized human embryos in stem cell research laboratories.

Most research in this field has been conducted on the ability embryonic stem cells have to differentiate into all cell types in the adult body and to propagate themselves endlessly under certain conditions.

Since 2001, embryonic stem cell research in the US has met serious difficulty as laws were passed to ban use of tax dollars to fund embryonic stem cell research. Scientists had to turn to adult stem cell lines that require more complicated technology to harvest from the limited range of cell types adult stem cells can generate.

The accusation of "playing God" in embryonic stem cell research is also made about another more mature technology: genetic engineering.

On genetically modified crops, in particular, critics are concerned about the ecological, moral and religious implications of this technology, as well as corporate control of food supply.

Despite opposition, genetic engineering has been widely recognized as an effective tool to develop agriculture. Some GM crops can reduce the use of fertilizers and pesticides, and thus decrease the impact of agriculture on the land.

Many international institutions have approved the safety of some GM crops.

In the past 10 years, the total area cultivated with GM crops continued to expand, with the US, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, India and China being major adopters of the crops, which covered 134 million hectares in 2009.

Climate change

As the Cancun UN conference on climate change took place in December last year in Mexico, freezing cold gripped much of the Northern Hemisphere, with temperatures dropping to decade lows and massive snowstorms striking Europe. People wondered whether the world is actually getting colder.

But research shows the world is getting warmer. Even countries most inactive in fighting global warming seldom publicly reject this fact. But action has been slow. The Montreal Protocol entering into force in 1989 successfully curbed production of chemicals responsible for ozone depletion, but such concerted worldwide effort hasn't been seen in climate talks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In an age when economic growth relies heavily on fossil fuels, achieving both high standards of living and less carbon emissions seems unlikely to many climate negotiators.

Negotiations have produced some progress. The Kyoto Protocol aimed at setting the goal for carbon emissions reductions by 2012 was adopted in 1997 and entered into force in 2005; up to 191 countries signing and ratifying so far. Under the protocol, building a low carbon economy has gradually become a public goal in many countries. World leaders convene every year to assess progress in dealing with climate change.

Climate talks are moving in the right direction, despite slow progress. Vast divides exist between nations, but they share common ground in combating global warming. Both governments and corporations are working together to reduce carbon emissions while sustaining economic development.


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