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A Lab-Grown Meat Startup Gets the FDA’s Stamp of Approval

A Lab-Grown Meat Startup Gets the FDA’s Stamp of Approval

Cultivated meat has been greenlit in the United States for the first time. The decision by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) means that a company called Upside Foods will soon be able to sell chicken made from real animal cells grown in bioreactors instead of requiring the slaughter of live animals.

A positive response from the FDA has long been seen as the next major milestone for the cultivated meat industry. In the past few years, startups in the space have built small-scale production facilities and raised billions of dollars in venture capital funding, but haven’t been able to sell their products to the public. Up until now, the small number of people invited to try cultivated meat have had to sign waivers acknowledging that the products are still experimental.

There are just two smaller regulatory steps remaining until cultivated meat can be made available to the public. Upside’s production facilities still require a grant of inspection from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the food itself will need a mark of inspection before it can enter the US market. These two steps are likely to be completed much more quickly than the long FDA premarket consultation process that resulted in the approval.

“It’s the moment we’ve been working toward for the past, almost seven years now,” says Uma Valeti, Upside’s CEO. “Opening up the US market is what every company in the world is trying to do.”

Different startups are focusing on a range of cultivated meats, including beef, chicken, salmon, and tuna. This announcement applies only to Upside Foods and its cultured chicken, although it’s likely that other declarations will follow soon. The products have been greenit through an FDA process called Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). Through this process, food manufacturers provide the FDA with details of their production process and the product it creates, and once the FDA is satisfied that the process is safe, it then issues a “no further questions” letter.

The FDA decision means that cultivated meat products may soon be available to the public to try, although it’s likely that tastings will be limited to a very small number of exclusive restaurants. Michelin-starred chef Dominique Crenn has already announced that she will serve Upside Foods’ cultivated chicken at her restaurant Atelier Crenn in San Francisco.

Valeti says that he wants the public to have their first taste of Upside chicken through selected restaurants before they can buy and cook it at home. “We would want to bring this to people through chefs in the initial stage,” says Valeti. “Getting chefs excited about this is a really big deal for us. We want to work with the best partners who know how to cook well, and also give us feedback on what we could do better.”

Atelier Crenn won’t be the first restaurant to serve cultivated meat, however. In December 2020, Singaporean regulators gave the green light to cultivated chicken from the San Francisco–based startup Eat Just. The chicken nuggets were sold at a members-only restaurant called 1880 and later made available for delivery.

All Eyes Are on Ian, the Hurricane of the Future

All Eyes Are on Ian, the Hurricane of the Future

As global average temperatures rise, the atmosphere will also hold on to greater quantities of moisture, meaning hurricanes could unleash stronger torrents of rain—as much as 14 percent more with 2 degrees Celsius warming, according to Knutson. Sea levels are also expected to rise, contributing to stronger storm surges and devastating impacts on coastal areas. “We have very high confidence that sea-level rise is going to continue, and that’s going to exacerbate any type of situation like the one we’re seeing now in Florida,” Knutson says.

Most climatologists agree that the intensity of hurricanes and tropical cyclones will increase as global temperatures rise, and that there’s a strong likelihood that they’ve already begun to do so. Since 1980, there’s been an increase in the percentage of hurricanes that reach Category 3 or higher, and storms have started to intensify more rapidly.

At this point, even if nations make good on their COP26 commitments, we’re likely to reach 2 degrees Celsius of global warming—a scenario in which coastal areas in hurricane-prone regions will face an unprecedented existential crisis. Sea-level rise will be a general problem, but will also be a particular threat during extreme weather events, leading to more violent storm surges and overland flooding that will devastate infrastructure and squeeze local and national resources.

Marshall Shepherd, a climatologist and former president of the American Meteorological Society, says the rising threat of tropical storms is a reality that can no longer be ignored—and yet one that we don’t seem to be adapting to. “In some ways these aren’t really natural disasters anymore,” he says. The fact that we keep placing human infrastructure and people in the pathway of these hurricanes, he argues, means that we can’t regard these as freak occurrences, but problems of our own making.

According to the US Census Bureau, Fort Myers, Florida, was the sixth-fastest-growing area in the country from 2020 to 2021. The fastest development there is still occurring along the coastline, with little thought to rising sea levels or an increased likelihood of extreme weather. Mitigation efforts like sea walls can be effective at protecting property from smaller storms, but walls would need to exceed 300 feet in height to protect infrastructure from the most intense hurricanes, at a cost that would exceed the value of the property being protected. “Going forward, there’s got to be realistic and smart growth solutions,” Shepherd says.

What realistic and smart growth will actually look like might be a bitter pill to swallow for those living in coastal inundation zones. Rob Young, a geologist and director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, says we need to start changing how we rebuild in the aftermath of these devastating storms. “There are probably areas that we simply shouldn’t put any infrastructure back in,” Young says. “But it’s really difficult to make that call after an emergency when everybody’s just trying to make themselves whole again.”

The complete devastation of Mexico Beach, Florida, by Hurricane Michael in 2018, which bombarded the area with 155 mph winds and a 17-foot storm surge, is a prime example, he says. The town’s rebuilding strategy consisted of elevating homes at least 18 feet off the ground to withstand future storm surges. “But they’re still building in a flood zone,” Young says. “We just don’t have the right kinds of incentives or disincentives to change that economic calculus yet—anywhere, not just in Florida.”

Whether or not communities reconsider where and how they live, hurricanes and tropical cyclones will almost certainly become stronger and deadlier. The threat is clear—how humanity will respond to it is not.

Wildfire Smoke Is Terrible for You. But What Does It Do to Cows?

Wildfire Smoke Is Terrible for You. But What Does It Do to Cows?

Other animals on the farm, too, may be vulnerable to wildfire smoke. Horses have massive lungs—the animals are born to run and suck in loads of air in the process. “We don’t know for sure, but horses could be one of the most sensitive species to smoke of all mammals,” says Kent E. Pinkerton, director of the Center for Health and the Environment at the University of California, Davis. “The volume of air that they’re taking in, that is basically laden with particles in the air that they’re breathing, could really be quite devastating to the horse.”

The infamous 2018 Camp Fire, which destroyed the town of Paradise, bathed the UC Davis campus in smoke, giving Pinkerton and his colleagues a unique opportunity to determine the effects on another species: the rhesus macaque. At the campus’ California National Primate Research Center, the macaques live in outdoor enclosures. So just as Skibiel did with dairy cows, Pinkerton could monitor them as the haze rolled in. 

He found an increase in miscarriage during the breeding season, which happened to overlap with the smoke event: 82 percent of the animals exposed to smoke gave birth, when in a normal year the average rate of live births is between 86 and 93 percent. “We actually had a small, but statistically significant, reduction in birth outcomes,” says Pinkerton. “We don’t know all the specifics of it, or what the precise cause would be, other than the fact that it was associated with wildfire smoke.” 

In Indonesia, which is plagued with peat fires, primatologist and ecologist Wendy Erb of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has studied smoke’s effect on another primate, the orangutan. Peat fires have created a dire public health crisis in Indonesia, where developers drain peatlands and set them on fire to create farmland. This is a particularly nasty kind of conflagration, as it smolders through carbon-rich fuel for months on end, bathing cities and surrounding forests in smoke for far longer than, say, a California wildfire that rips through vegetation. 

Erb monitors individual orangutans in the wild by collecting urine and stool samples (yes, that means standing under trees to catch the stuff) and following them around throughout the day to see how much they’re eating and how much energy they’re expending. From the urine samples, she can determine ketosis, or whether the animal is metabolizing fat as an energy source. 

Following smoke events, she found, ketosis among orangutans increased significantly. “We actually saw that they were eating more calories, but despite eating more calories they’re also resting more, and they traveled shorter distances,” says Erb. “So they’re showing this energy-conservation strategy—they’re moving less, they’re slowing down, and they’re eating more calories—but they’re still going into ketosis.” 

One hypothesis, which the team hasn’t yet tested, is that the orangutan’s bodies are mounting an immune response to the deluge of smoke, and that they need more calories to fuel that defense. But this might use up calories the animals need for other life necessities, like growing, reproducing, and feeding their offspring. (Of all the primates, orangutan mothers spend the most time raising their children.) Saving energy by moving less also means fewer opportunities to socialize, which is a concern for a primate that’s already critically endangered because it’s losing its habitat to deforestation.

Nuclear Power Plants Are Struggling to Stay Cool

Nuclear Power Plants Are Struggling to Stay Cool

From its humble start as a glacial trickle in the Swiss Alps, the Rhône River quickly transforms into one of the world’s most industrialized waterways. As it winds through the south of France toward the Mediterranean Sea, its chilly water is drawn into boilers, sucked through pipes as coolant, deviated for agriculture. Among its biggest customers is a battalion of nuclear reactors. Since the 1970s, the river and its tributaries have helped generate about a quarter of France’s atomic energy.

But in recent weeks that hasn’t been the case. Amidst a slow-burning heat wave that has killed hundreds and sparked intense wildfires across Western Europe, and combined with already low water levels due to drought, the Rhône’s water has gotten too hot for the job. It’s no longer possible to cool reactors without expelling water downstream that’s so hot as to extinguish aquatic life. So a few weeks ago, Électricité de France (EDF) began powering down some reactors along the Rhône and a second major river in the south, the Garonne. That’s by now a familiar story: Similar shutdowns due to drought and heat occurred in 2018 and 2019. This summer’s cuts, combined with malfunctions and maintenance on other reactors, have helped reduce France’s nuclear power output by nearly 50 percent.

Of all the low-carbon energy sources that will likely be necessary to fight climate change, nuclear power is usually thought of as the least perturbable. It’s the reinforcement that’s called in when the weather doesn’t cooperate for other zero-carbon energy sources, like wind and solar. But the nuclear industry faces its own climate risks.

Problems with water—too much of it or too little—are more commonly associated with hydroelectric dams, which have struggled to maintain output in drying places like the American West. But as the Swedish historian Per Högselius puts it, much of present-day nuclear engineering is not about splitting atoms, but about managing larger-scale aquatic concerns. Nuclear technicians are known to refer to their craft as a very complicated way of boiling water, producing steam that spins turbines. But much more is usually required to keep the reactor cool. That’s why so many facilities are located by the sea and along big rivers like the Rhône.

Plenty of other industries are affected by hotter rivers, including big factories and power plants that run on coal and gas. But nuclear plants are unique because of their immense size and the central role they play in keeping energy grids online in places like France. And warming and dwindling rivers are not the only climate challenges they face. On the coasts, a combination of sea level rise and more frequent and intense storms means heightened flooding risks. Scientists have also pointed to other, more unusual challenges, like more frequent algal blooms and exploding jellyfish populations, which can clog up the water pipes.

Nuclear plants are also built to last well into the future, with lifespans that extend a half-century or more. Many were constructed in the 1970s and ’80s—long before regulators thought to factor in climate-related threats they would eventually encounter, explains Natalie Kopytko, a researcher at the University of Leeds who has dug into nuclear regulatory frameworks to look for climate considerations. “I saw absolutely nothing about climate change, which was quite scary,” she says. Where Kopytko did see the climate invoked, the plans assumed that current weather patterns would hold well into the future.

A Long-Lost Rare Crayfish Resurfaces in an Alabama Cave

A Long-Lost Rare Crayfish Resurfaces in an Alabama Cave

Historically, Shelta Cave was one of the most diverse cave systems in the eastern United States. Long before Niemiller and other scientists came along, beetles, salamanders, shrimp, crayfish, and other animals lived out their days in the dark. Often blind and lacking pigmentation, many cave-dwelling species live longer than their surface-dwelling relatives, thanks to slower metabolisms—a common evolutionary adaptation to subterranean life. For example, the red swamp crayfish, the unfortunate star of many a Louisiana crawfish boil, can live up to five years in the swamps and ditches they call home. Shelta’s southern cave crayfish, O. australis, lives up to 22 years, and it’s thought that the Shelta Cave crayfish has a similar lifespan.

A colony of gray bats also made Shelta Cave their home. Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, these adorable, furry “microbats” deposited guano throughout the cave—a valuable food source for many of the other cave critters, including the Shelta Cave crayfish. For centuries, the balanced ecosystem of bats, crayfish, and other Shelta Cave animals carried on, undisturbed.

Then entrepreneur Henry M. Fuller came along. In 1888, Fuller bought the cave, naming it after his daughter, according to Scott Shaw, who manages the Shelta Cave Nature Preserve. A year later, Fuller built a wooden dance floor and installed some of the city’s first electric lights in the cavern, creating a popular entertainment destination. When rainwater swelled the subterranean lakes, Fuller even operated wooden boat tours for visitors. Nicknaming the cave “the eighth wonder of the world,” Fuller ran ads that boasted, “all the discoveries of the old world pale into insignificance in comparison to this greatest sight on earth or under the earth.” “Yeah, it was a big affair,” says Shaw—but it was not meant to last.

After 1896, Shelta changed hands several times, reportedly even becoming a speakeasy during Prohibition. In 1967, the National Speleological Society (NSS), an organization that studies and protects caves, bought the cave to preserve its unique ecosystem.

man climbing cave

A 30-foot ladder descends into the yawning mouth of Shelta Cave.COURTESY AMATA HINKLE