Letters from the March 29, 2008, issue of Science News

Why switch to grass?

Regarding “Switchgrass may yield biofuel bounty” (SN: 1/19/08, p. 46): Distilleries have been around since the dawn of time, including barleycorn (whiskey), maize (whiskey), potatoes (vodka), sugarcane (rum), and arcane brews distilled from beets, bread crumbs, and bamboo. The ethanol molecule cares not one wit about its particular provenance, so what is so special about a soil-depleting broom like switchgrass, when economically important sources have been around for millennia?

David C. Oshel
Cedar Rapids, Iowa

It’s true that just about any plant matter can be used to make ethanol. But because switchgrass is not a food source, high demand for switchgrass-based ethanol wouldn’t directly affect market prices for food commodities, as the demand for corn-based ethanol has done for corn prices. Also, switchgrass can be grown on land not suitable for food crops, and it requires relatively little energy to grow, which improves the net gain in energy from the ethanol produced. Using switchgrass leaves the other crops available for other purposes.—Patrick Barry


Your recent article by Susan Milius about increasing levels of CO2 in the sea (“The Next Ocean,” SN: 3/15/08, p. 170) was extremely well written! It was engaging and clear. Thank you!

Katherine Muzik
Okinawa, Japan

No data without scientists

Unfortunately for the success of the Encyclopedia of Life project (“Biological Moon Shot,” SN: 2/2/08, p. 72), development of browser-friendly portals to scientists’ data does no good unless there’s also someone hiring scientists to work on each species. There are not enough jobs for scientists working on systematics, especially invertebrates and protists, to generate the necessary data.

David Campbell
Tuscaloosa, Ala.

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