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February 01, 2014

J. Craig Venter, Pioneering Genome Scientist, to Speak at Norwich University

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2011 photo of J. Craig Venter from Wikimedia Commons

For J. Craig Venter, the sky isn't the limit, but Mars might be. The 67-year-old biologist and entrepeneur first mapped the human genome in the late 1990s using a technique he invented and called "shotgun sequencing." A decade later, in 2010, one of his organizations, Synthetic Genomics, became the first to develop "synthetic life," essentially fabricating a strand of DNA that contained the entire genome of a bacteria cell. 

Now, as Venter writes about in his new book, Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life, his organization is researching potential applications for the fledgling field of synthetic biology. They range from straightforward to totally outlandish: crafting better vaccines or more efficient sources of nutrition; cleaning water and air; and equipping NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover with DNA-sequencing techology that could digitally map Martian genomes and beam them back to Earth for re-creation in labs. 

J-craig-venter-life-speed-light-double-helix-dawn-38It wouldn't be the first time Venter has looked beyond Earth to solve our scientific riddles. For the last six years, he and other scientists have crisscrossed 80,000 miles of sea in his private yacht, the Sorcerer II. That project, known as the Global Ocean Sampling Expedition, has led to the discovery of hundreds of new species of microbes, as well as millions of genetic base pairs and a couple thousand new families of proteins.

Venter will speak about his new book at Norwich University on Monday, February 3 (details below). In advance of that lecture, we spoke with him by phone about a few of his accomplishments, as well the state of science in the U.S.

SEVEN DAYS: Since developing the first synthetic cell in 2010, you’ve said that a “vision is being borne out” for how this technology can help us create better vaccines, biofuels, cleaner water, more abundant sources of food, etc. Where do you see that vision being borne out now, and what are some developments we could feasibly see in the next five years?

 

J. CRAIG VENTER: Well, those are all areas that we’re actively working in at Synthetic Genomics, and it’s not clear yet where the fastest applications will be. But I think the vaccine area might be one of them, certainly based on immediate needs. New flu strains are emerging in China and other places, and the number of deaths from flu are starting to mount in the U.S., so I think it’s all very critical for new developments.

 

Continue reading "J. Craig Venter, Pioneering Genome Scientist, to Speak at Norwich University" »

January 31, 2014

Lisman's Group Accuses House Democrat of Solar Conflict

01.30.14 CFV Ltr to Speaker Rule 75A group founded and funded by retired Wall Street banker Bruce Lisman has accused a St. Albans Democrat of violating House rules by voting for legislation that would help his employer.

In a letter (see below) to House Speaker Shap Smith, Campaign for Vermont lobbyist Shawn Shouldice took Rep. Mike McCarthy (D-St. Albans) to task Thursday for supporting legislation that would expand Vermont's net-metering program.

Net metering encourages Vermonters to produce electricity at home and work, in exchange for a break on their power bills. Shouldice said that the bill would benefit SunCommon, the Waterbury-based solar leasing company for which McCarthy works as a community organizer.

The legislation increases the amount of renewable energy utilities can buy from customers from 4 percent of the companies' peak demand to 15 percent. The bill won preliminary approval Wednesday by a 136-8 margin and final passage Thursday by voice vote.

In her letter, Shouldice said the episode demonstrates the need for ethics reform, a cause Lisman and Campaign for Vermont have been trumpeting lately.

Continue reading "Lisman's Group Accuses House Democrat of Solar Conflict" »

On Paid Sick Leave, Top Vermont Dems Are Noncommittal

Paid sick leave hearing 1.30.14
John Dubie, owner of Burlington's Pearl Street Beverage, testified against paid sick leave legislation Thursday at the Statehouse.

With a reference to the world of Don Draper, President Obama renewed his call for mandatory paid sick leave Tuesday night in his State of the Union address

"A mother deserves a day off to care for a sick child or sick parent without running into hardship," he said. "And you know what, a father does, too. It's time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a 'Mad Men' episode."

But the president's full-throated support for the idea isn't exactly echoed by Vermont's Democratic leaders. As a committee in the Vermont House takes up legislation that would require businesses to provide employees up to seven days per year in accrued, paid sick leave, top Dems have been hesitant to take a side.

Continue reading "On Paid Sick Leave, Top Vermont Dems Are Noncommittal" »

Cornwall Board Takes Aim at Vermont Gas Pipeline

PipelineflaggThe town of Cornwall is calling on the Addison County Regional Planning Commission to fight a proposed natural gas pipeline that, if constructed, would carry gas underground from Middlebury to Ticonderoga, N.Y. 

The Public Service Board approved "Phase One" of the Addison Natural Gas Project, which regional planners endorsed, in late December; that leg will bring gas south from Chittenden County to Middlebury. Vermont Gas — a subsidiary of GazMetro — filed plans requesting approval for "Phase Two" with the PSB in November. The second leg would jog southwest, through Cornwall, Shoreham, and then under Lake Champlain to its terminus: the International Paper plant in Ticonderoga, N.Y. 

In her letter this week to the regional planners, Cornwall selectboard member Judy Watts points to two provisions in the regional plan which she argues provide "specific and unambiguous" reasons for rejecting the Phase II project. The plan states that energy infrastructure and services should not "cause undue adverse impact to the health and safety of residents or on the environmental quality of the Addison Region," and that no large energy generation or transmission facilities should be constructed in the region "which have as their primary purpose providing energy markets outside the Addison Region." The letter is signed by all five members of the Cornwall selectboard. 

Continue reading "Cornwall Board Takes Aim at Vermont Gas Pipeline" »

January 28, 2014

Video: Sanders Gets All Up in Bachmann's Grill

State of the union? Booooooring. 

If you're lookin' for a good (political) time tonight, we recommend you skip that snooze-fest of a speech and watch this clip of our own Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) appearing alongside — gasp! — Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) Monday night on CNN's  "Situation Room."

Here it is (with apologies for being slow on the uptake):

  

After you're done watching, repeat after me: "DO YOU SUPPORT A CHAINED CPI?"

Calm down.

DO YOU SUPPORT A CHAINED CPI?!"

Calm down.

Allegations Against Vermont Public Television CEO at Heart of Board Intrigue

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VPT president and CEO John King

Many of the allegedly secret meetings that have landed Vermont Public Television's board of directors in hot water with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting were held to discuss allegations made by a former employee against VPT president and CEO John King, according to several people involved with the situation.

The former employee, who spoke to Seven Days on the condition of anonymity, said she told then-board vice chairwoman Pam Mackenzie in February 2012 that King had directed sexually harassing remarks at her when she worked for the station. She also accused him of engaging in questionable practices in fundraising and the use of grant money. 

King vigorously disputes all of the charges, saying they were investigated and "found to be unsubstantiated."

The allegations prompted board members to engage an independent human resources firm — Shelburne-based Church, Engle & Associates — in March 2012 to investigate the former employee's charges. As the board weighed the allegations, its executive committee met repeatedly without providing notice to the public, according to records of the meetings obtained by Seven Days. In April 2012 alone, according to those records, the executive committee met seven times behind closed doors.

Continue reading "Allegations Against Vermont Public Television CEO at Heart of Board Intrigue" »

Senate Committee Advances Shoreland Protection Rules

LM-land-katieAfter striking some compromises between environmentalists and property rights advocates, the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee unanimously approved legislation on Friday that would tighten the rules governing shoreland development in Vermont. The bill is scheduled to come before the full Senate next week.

Big picture? The proposed rules are designed to improve water quality by limiting clearing and development on the very edges of Vermont's lakes and ponds; keeping shorelands more intact would prevent runoff and maintain critical habitat at the water's edge. Vermont passed some shoreland development rules in the 1970s, but they expired a few years later and were not reinstated. Today, according to the Agency of Natural Resources, Vermont is the only northeastern state without a statewide lakeshore protection rule on the books.

That may be about to change.

Continue reading "Senate Committee Advances Shoreland Protection Rules" »

Burlington City Council Approves Sweeping Waterfront Redevelopment Proposal, Sending it to Voters

IMG_0240The Burlington City Council gave its blessing Monday night to a multimillion-dollar plan for redeveloping Burlington's downtown waterfront. The approval clears the path for the proposal to go before voters on Town Meeting Day.

The redevelopment plan bundles six projects into one and would rely on $7.5 million in tax-increment financing (TIF) to come to fruition. TIF money lets cities and towns allocate future tax revenues from within a defined district for use on public infrastructure projects. 

The plan would also draw on other public and private funding sources.

At its cornerstone is a $26 million proposal to convert the Moran Plant into a performance space,  rooftop restaurant, “nano-brewery” and "maker space."

Continue reading "Burlington City Council Approves Sweeping Waterfront Redevelopment Proposal, Sending it to Voters" »

January 27, 2014

Candidates Declare for Seven Open Burlington City Council Seats

Two Republicans — one veteran and one newcomer — are seeking to hold onto their party’s meager presence on the Burlington City Council.

Monday marked the filing deadline for council hopefuls, meaning that the candidate pool for the seven open seats has solidified. Elections will be held on Town Meeting Day, March 4. 

Democrats and Republicans are vying for two seats in Ward 4 and Ward 7; if Democrats secure both, they would lay claim to all four New North End seats, leaving Republicans without representation on the council.

Democrats currently control seven seats on the 14-seat council, while Progressives hold four, Independents two and Republicans one. Two incumbent Democrats and one Republican opted to vacate their seats this spring rather than seek reelection.

Continue reading "Candidates Declare for Seven Open Burlington City Council Seats" »

Shumlin Names Fox's Widower, Michael Sirotkin, to Vermont Senate

Sirotkin.FoxGov. Peter Shumlin on Monday named South Burlington attorney and lobbyist Michael Sirotkin to replace his late wife, Sally Fox, in the Vermont Senate. 

Sirotkin was one of three candidates recommended to the governor last Wednesday by members of the Chittenden County Democratic Committee. The others were Williston Selectboard member Debbie Ingram and Burlington management consultant Dawn Ellis.

"There were several exceptional candidates interested in this Senate seat," Shumlin said in a written statement. "But Sally wanted her husband to fill her seat after her death, and recognizing Sirotkin's strong qualifications, I'm honoring that request. I'm confident that Michael will continue the great work Sally did for the district and the state."

Continue reading "Shumlin Names Fox's Widower, Michael Sirotkin, to Vermont Senate" »

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