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    Pictures of baby Noah showed a milkiness in one eye, which later indicated retinoblastoma.
    Elizabeth Shaw, courtesy of Bryan Shaw
    Like most parents, Bryan Shaw snapped unending pictures of his new son Noah. But when the baby was just a few months old, Shaw’s wife Elizabeth started to notice something odd about the pictures: in them, one of Noah’s eyes appeared milky-white instead of red.

    When his wife approached him with the concern, Shaw, who was then a chemistry post-doctoral student at Harvard, chalked it up to first-time-parent worries. “I told her it was nothing,” he says. “I took a bunch more pictures and the milkiness went away at some angles.”

    It wasn’t for a few more months that Noah was diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a rare eye cancer that affect 8,000 children each year and kills more than 4,000. The milkiness comes from light reflecting off tumors in the back of the eye, where the cancer starts. It only occurs in children under 5 years, when the retina is still developing.

    While Noah was undergoing treatment for his cancer, Shaw started to think about the pictures he had taken – and he began to wonder if they could have signaled an earlier diagnosis.

    Shaw, who is now a professor of chemistry at Baylor University, has now teamed up with Noah’s doctors to author new research published last week in the journal PLoS ONE analyzing more than 7,000 photos of Noah and other babies’ eyes, with the aim of developing a system to identify leukocoria, the white-eye syndrome that led doctors to diagnose retinoblastoma. The paper shows that digital photos can diagnose the illness, and that the amount of leukocoria also correlates with the size of the eye tumors.

    Noah lost one eye in the fight with cancer, but he is a happy and healthy boy otherwise. Shaw says that a screening tool could do much good in the developing world, where early diagnosis and treatment are often lacking. Survival rates are around 95% in the US, but less than 46% in Namibia. “Cell phones are booming the third world,” he says. “People have a camera phone even if they don’t have a washer or a car. In places like China or India, peoples’ access to digital photography increases at a faster rate than their access to doctors does.”

    Shaw found that the leukocoria could be traced back to pictures of his son at only 12 days old – months before the diagnosis actually occurred. He also says that leukocoria can be seen even with red-eye reduction settings on cameras.

    There is a problem with some of the new smartphones, warns Shaw. When the LED flash sites close to the lens -- as in the iPhone 4 and other phones – everyone appears to have white-eye, especially when photographed in low-light conditions. Shaw says that the new iPhone 5 may have fixed the problem, and that he is talking to companies the potential for an easy screening product.

    This is not the first time that digital photography has helped diagnose eye disease. The eyes of people with Coats’ disease appear yellow in photographs, and apps are being developed to diagnose and monitor adults with retina problems.

    Still, Shaw says that doctors haven’t thought about harnessing the power of recreational photography. “By the time the eye is white, it’ll too late to save it. We show that pictures can detect the tumors at their early stage, without needing to shoot at a magic angle.”

    Any parent can appreciate the power of baby pictures.




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    Pouring wine into a glass
    Coravin Wine Access System
    Brian Klutch

    Wanting only a glass or two of wine puts drinkers in a tough spot. Once the bottle’s opened, the wine starts to oxidize and lose its flavor. No rubber stopper will halt the process, leaving partial bottles to go to waste. Greg Lambrecht, a medical-device entrepreneur, figured out a way to solve the problem. The devices that Lambrecht once built used a special needle to access implants without creating permanent punctures. His Coravin Wine Access System uses the same idea to draw wine from a bottle without uncorking it.

    To pour a glass, a user places the Coravin on top of a bottle, pushing its hollow 2mm-thick needle through the cork. A capsule then releases argon, an inert nonpoisonous gas, into the bottle. The pressure forces out the wine. In all, it takes about 20 seconds per pour; when the needle is removed, the cork reseals itself.

    Over the past decade, Lambrecht has conducted blind tests with sommeliers to compare wine accessed with Coravin to unopened bottles of the same vintage. Most perceived no taste difference. Meanwhile, Lambrecht has used Coravin to drink his bottle of inspiration, a 1990 Paul Jaboulet Aine Hermitage la Chapelle, in its entirety—one glass at a time, over three years.

    Coravin Wine Access System

    Time to pour: 20 seconds (est.)
    Lifetime: 15 5-oz. glasses/capsule


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    Maven At Mars

    CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — In their infancy, maybe even into their adolescence, Earth and Mars were more alike than they were different. Each rocky world was pockmarked by volcanoes, and waterways carved both surfaces. Atmospheres blanketed both planets, and each harbors rocks that could only have formed in lakes or oceans. Four billion years ago, alien visitors standing on each planet’s surface might have looked up and beheld an identical blue sky.

    But like any siblings, the two planets changed as they grew older. Earth’s liquid iron core creates a magnetic field, which protects the planet from blistering solar rays. Somehow, Mars’ geomagnetic dynamo died. Earth, the bigger planet, held onto its atmosphere; little Mars, with only 38 percent of Earth’s gravity, saw its air stripped away. Earth kept its oceans and its water cycle, and Mars became the dusty, dry and dead world we know today.

    How this happened — and why it happened to Mars, and not us — is the biggest unexplored question on the Red Planet. Answering it will shed light on Mars' history — and how long it may have been a hospitable home for life. The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Explorer (MAVEN) will launch as soon as Monday to find out.

    Buttoned Up and Go for Launch

    Before it can answer any questions, MAVEN has to get to Mars — a huge challenge even if you don’t count the 10-month journey between the two planets. About five years in the making, MAVEN was designed and built in Colorado, and a C-17 cargo plane finally brought it to Kennedy Space Center Aug. 2. Scientists and engineers spent the next three months filling it with rocket fuel, installing explosive charges so it can free itself from its launch casing, and making sure everything works like it should.

    MAVEN was already buttoned up in its rocket fairing when I visited it earlier this month, while it was still in a cleanroom at Kennedy’s Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility. Workers wearing white bunny suits stepped around a bulky white hose, which snaked into the cone-topped cylinder to deliver filtered, refrigerated air. Inside, MAVEN’s solar panels were folded tight against its 8-foot cube body.

    Maven's Fairing Arrives
    NASA/Kim Shiflett

    While most of us think of space as frigid, the warmth of launch and the sun can actually be a bigger problem, explained Jim Morrissey, MAVEN’s instrument systems manager. Keeping MAVEN air-conditioned gives it more time to warm up after it blows away its protective fairing.

    After it passed several crucial instrument tests, MAVEN was attached to its Atlas V rocket and made its way to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, down the road from KSC. It’s a different facility than the one that launched the space shuttles for 30 years. Last week, while most of the eastern seaboard slept, a crew drove the rocket 5 mph the roughly 15 miles to the launch pad, arriving just before 3 a.m.

    As of Nov. 14, everything looks good and launch is a 60 percent “go” — at this point, the only hiccup will probably be the weather, which might be cloudy and rainy. The team only has 20 days it can try to launch, and two-hour daily windows open for the first time at 1:28 p.m. eastern time Nov. 18. Timing is so crucial that MAVEN’s team got a special exception to keep working during the 17-day government shutdown last month.

    Flinging MAVEN at Mars

    Each launch window lasts about two hours, and is based on Mars’ location and Earth’s position relative to the sun. Spacecraft bound for Mars and other distant destinations typically take off from KSC because they can safely launch eastward to take advantage of Earth’s rotation.

    “You want to get the most pushoff from Earth that you can,” explained Bruce Jakosky, MAVEN’s principal investigator and a scientist at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “You want it to be flinging you at Mars.”

    Maven Preparing For Launch
    A transporter moves NASA's MAVEN spacecraft, inside a payload fairing, to the Vertical Integration Facility at Launch Complex 41. Last week, it was hoisted atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, which will boost it into space and on to Mars.
    NASA/Kim Shiflett

    Once it escapes Earth, MAVEN will orbit the sun for 10 months, arriving at Mars on Sept. 22, 2014, right when the planet is in position waiting for it. Once it’s captured by the planet’s gravity, MAVEN will orbit Mars in a dramatic elliptical orbit that takes it between 93 miles and 3,800 miles from the planet’s surface. That will allow it to dip into the uppermost atmosphere, and fling itself halfway to the moon Phobos.

    Five times during its one-year mission, MAVEN will dip to just 77 miles above Mars — just a handful of miles past the generally accepted limit of space at Earth. Its eight science instruments will sip the tenuous high atmosphere, figuring out the composition of gases up there, and measure solar radiation, high-energy particles and the planet’s limited magnetic field. This will paint a detailed picture of Mars’ upper atmosphere and ionosphere, and how the sun and solar wind interact with it, for the first time.

    As Curiosity and Opportunity scrutinize the surface, MAVEN is the first spacecraft designed to study what happens above. Ultimately, MAVEN will help us understand how Mars lost its water and its atmosphere — and maybe, what that means for life.


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    sunset through the chainlinks

    Here are some links on infestations, contagions, and controls from around the web this week. Have more? Add them in the comments.

    In outbreak news

    The Verge reports on the mystery as to why dengue fever is surfacing in some parts of the US that are home to the mosquito that carries it—Aedes aegypti—and not others.

    Thirteen polio cases have been confirmed in Syria, according to the World Health Organization. New Scientists asks whether Syria’s polio problem is a threat to Europe.

    Researchers found evidence of the MERS virus in a pet camel in Saudi Arabia. The owner of the camel fell ill with the virus.

    Outbreak News has an interview on Chagas disease, which afflicts between 300,000 and 1 million people in the US.

    A new report says a woman in Taiwan was hospitalized by a bird flu strain previously only found in poultry.

    And the Atlantic explores whether health advice on avoiding the cold virus from an old-timey health video holds up today (spoiler alert: sort of). 

    In microbe news

    Both OnEarth and PopSci have stories on antibiotic resistant bacteria that are showing up in crows. This is disconcerting because the resistance appears to be linked to an antibiotic that came from people, and it could be further spread by the birds

    Quartz has a report on the post-antibiotic era, noting the alarming statistic that more people in the US now die of antibiotic-resistant bacteria than from AIDS.

    But again, microbes can be awesome, too. Kevin Liu explains the key critters that help flavor your beer and whiskey.

    In agriculture news

    Kevin Bonham’s Food Matters blog at Scientific American has an interesting two partseries on GMO labeling from a progressive scientist’s perspective.

    And the Conversation has a lovely post on the story of the cane frog in Australia, which was imported in 1935 to help with pest control but instead became one of the country’s most infamous invasive species.

    In intriguing controls news

    Wired has a story on four cool immunization tools that forgo needles (although the microneedles example seems to be cheating).

    In Vietnam, scientists are releasing mosquitoes that have been purposely infected with Wolbachia, a bacteria that prevents the insects from being infected with dengue. 

    Ed Yong has a post at Not Exactly Rocket Science on a possible new approach for killing bacteria persisters (not to confused with resistant bacteria).

    And Amy Maxmen has another great story on malaria in Africa, this time covering a controversial but promising new approach for preventing the disease.

    In creepy crawly news

    Salon has an interview up with journalist Dana Goodyear and Iron Chef champion Ed Lee where they discuss our inevitable future as insectivores.

    Science News has a fascinating story on the necrobiome, or the collection of microbes living in cadavers.

    The Atlantic reports that schools aren’t sending kids with lice home in order to avoid hurting their feelings.

    And finally, here is a truly cringe-worthy story about a scientist who let a sand flea burrow into her foot for two months for science.  


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    Michelle Mruk

    An organism's fecundity is the number of offspring it can have in a lifetime. Here, species are listed from left to right by adult body weight.

    This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of Popular Science.


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  • 11/15/13--09:18: OTP Part 5
  • ©Maki Naro


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    photo of a beach on Margarita Island, Venezuela
    Beach on Margarita Island, Venezuela

    The Caribbean's complex history has given the area more than diverse languages and delicious food. The indigenous South Americans, Europeans and Africans that came to live in the area, willingly or unwillingly, left their mark in other ways, too. 

    We previously learned that one gene for skin color in South Asian people can show how populations moved around the Indian subcontinent. Now, a different team of researchers is reporting on how the movement of populations through the Caribbean basin left behind genetic signatures among the people who live there today. 

    Just as with India, many of these movements are already known from historical records and archaeological discoveries. Nevertheless, it's cool to see that even people who did not necessarily get to write their own histories still left legacies for geneticists to find. 

    Researchers from all over the Americas examined the genes of 330 people living in south Florida and the Caribbean coast of Venezuela. The people said their families came from many places: Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hispaniola, Honduras and Colombia, as well as the native South American ethnic groups of the Yukpa, the Bari and the Warao. The researchers compared this data with a database of the genomes of more than 3,000 people of diverse origins. The scientists used computer models to figure out what scenario—did your family see an influx of European genes 20 generations ago or just five generations ago?—best explained their study volunteers' mixture of genetic material.

    map of the Caribbean islands and nearby land
    Map of the Caribbean Basin
    Made by Kmusser, CC BY-SA 3.0

    The researchers found evidence that Native South Americans living in the Caribbean islands descended from people who used to live on the mainland, and that those people moved between the Caribbean islands extensively before the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century.

    The Atlantic slave trade also left its genetic mark in the Caribbean. The genes of people living in the area today show two major influxes of Africans to the region. One influx dates to the beginning of the slave trade and points to people originating from coastal West Africa. The other dates from the height of the slave trade and originated from West Central Africa. 

    Meanwhile, Caribbean people of at least 25 percent European descent are quite different, genetically, from their Iberian ancestors. The researchers think that's because the original founding population was so small, they didn't represent a good average of Iberian genes. Over time, that founding population's quirks got magnified as their descendants had descendants, and so on.

    There's even some evidence of specific gender and race relations in the past. Caribbean people with indigenous South American ancestors are much more likely to have gotten that through the women in their family tree than the men. On the other hand, African contributions to a family tree usually weren't divided by sex; people were equally likely to have African male ancestors as they were to have African female ancestors. 

    The research appears in the journal PLOS Genetics. In a statement, the study's authors said that in the future, they hoped their work would help medical researchers figure out whether different Caribbean populations may be more prone to certain diseases, based on their ancestry.


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    Primary forest in Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia
    Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Natural National Park was named the most irreplaceable site for threatened species in the world.
    Daisy Tarrier via Wikimedia Commons

    It's common to talk about animal species that are threatened, endangered, or extinct. Many times these are cute, fuzzy creatures that elicit emotional responses (and thus a desire to contribute to their conservation). But a major part of what leads to a particular adorable species' ability to persist is the environment in which it lives. A new study out this week in the journal Science analyzes data from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species, as well as the World Database of Protected Areas to name the most irreplaceable protected areas on our planet. 

    To determine how irreplaceable each site is, scientists examined data on 173,000 terrestrial protected sites and 21,500 species. One key factor is how the site contributes to the survival of a species—so, the potential for conservation, or the potential for losing species as a result of not taking steps to conserve. These forests, mountains ranges, wetlands, and more house species that oftentimes don't exist anywhere else, and so the management—or mismanagement—of these areas could make a big difference in conservation efforts. 

    Focusing on charismatic species like the polar bear could harm the ecosystem as a whole

    In total, 137 areas in 34 countries were identified as most important for preserving. Many are already designated under UNESCO's World Heritage Convention, but more than half are not, including the most irreplaceable site, Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Natural National Park. The park is home to a number of endemic and endangered species. Then there are sites such as the Párramo Urrao National Protective Forest Reserves, which Paul Salaman, CEO of the Rainforest Trust, said in a statement does not even exist as a protected site in practice, only in name. It's expected that protected areas—which make up 13 percent of the land on Earth—would be, as the name suggests, protected. But for various reasons, that's not always the case.

    The study details that many local management plans involve focusing on "charismatic species" (i.e. the cuddly polar bear) in a way that could harm the ecosystem as a whole. To more effectively manage sites so that all threatened species—no matter how small and unattractive—also survive, the researchers recommend targeting species for which that area has the highest obligation to protect.  

    This research builds on previous studies that have looked at the importance of increasing the amount of protected areas, but the study out in Science this week focuses on the improvement of management efforts at existing protected sites.In the study, lead author Soizic Le Saout recommends the inclusion of the remaining areas not protected as a World Heritage Site to gain the protections afforded by such a distinction, 

    You can browse all of the irreplaceable sites here, and explore all of the species that could benefit from maintaining these areas.


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    undated photo of the interior of Robinsons Place Manila in the Philippines
    'Til You Drop
    Robinsons Place Manila, Philippines
    Ninjakeg, CC BY-SA 3.0

    You've seen it happen. One day, you're aspirationally browsing performance outerwear online; the next day, you're seeing ads for Primaloft and Gore-Tex on every website you visit. That's the power of tracking people while they're shopping—even if they don't buy anything—and brick-and-mortar stores want to get in on that action, too. They just need a way to record where their customers go, the way websites do.

    MIT Technology Review recently took a look at progress in indoor tracking. Watching where people go inside buildings, where GPS can't yet reach, is a little more challenging than keeping tabs on people outdoors or online. Nevertheless, MIT Technology Review names a few U.S. stores that have tried the technology, including Home Depot, Nordstrom, Family Dollar and American Apparel. The article also includes a helpful chart of the different methods of tracking stores use. Most ping customers' smartphones somehow. Stores may also use cameras to monitor shoppers.

    Besides just knowing what you look at, such data help stores better lay out their displays, cashiers and escalators; learn characteristics of their customers, such as gender and age; identify repeat customers and more. Some systems are even calibrated to detect people's moods, The New York Timesreported in July.

    Customer reactions to these systems are mixed. Nordstrom stopped using its smartphone Wi-Fi tracking system in May, in part because of customer complaints, a spokeswoman told The New York Times. (The store had posted signs telling customers about what it was doing.) Others, however, may find coupons helpful. You can even willfully sell your physical-store shopping data, The Times reports, via a smartphone app.


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    A female specimen of a zebrafish (Danio rerio) breed with fantails
    Azul via Wikimedia Commons

    The striped zebrafish is a popular pet, not uncommon in aquariums. But it may have a lot more in common with pet owners than you might guess by looking at it—humans actually share 70 percent of our genes with the little swimmers. This is cool for many reasons; for one, the zebrafish can repair its own heart, and the commonalities have made it a focus of medical research. And now, in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers have identified the receptor for the particularly putrid aroma of cadaverine, also known as rotting flesh. 

    Cadaverine or putrescine (a related compound that is also caused by decomposing organisms) is a positive signal for many species. For rats or goldfish, the smell could mean there's food nearby; for certain insects, it could point to a good place to lay eggs. For some felines, it's a social cue that they use to mark territory, and for yet other species, it can be a sign of danger. As it turns out, zebrafish—like humans—are averse to the smell produced by rotting dead things. 

    "It signals danger, if a dead body is lying around maybe the danger is still around. It could also signal that the meat is toxic and should not be eaten," study author Sigrun Korsching told BBC News.

    Cadaverine is produced during the decomposition process of animal tissue and sometimes is also produced by living beings. When the odor reaches the receptor in zebrafish, it travels to the brain and triggers evasive behavior.

    While this study focused on the zebrafish receptor—identified as TAAR13c—there could be implications for a similar neural network in humans. 


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    Code Flowers
    Daniel Brown via Creative Applications Network


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    Courtesy Washington State Department of Transportation

    57.5 feet: the width of the world's largest tunnel-boring machine, the 25,000-horsepower Bertha

    10 months: the time it will take NASA's new MAVEN spacecraft to reach Mars. The spacecraft, set to launch Monday, should help scientists discover how Mars lost its atmosphere and water. 

    Maven At Mars

    1967: the year the U.S. Air Force hoped to put humans on the moon with its own lunar expedition plan, called LUNEX

    Two possible LUNEX lunar landing configurations

    $100: the money Stephen Hawking lost in a bet over the Higgs boson

    35 minutes: the time it would take to get from New York City to Montreal via the Hyperloop (Explore a hypothetical North American Hyperloop network with our new interactive infographic)

    $230: the price of the Ivee Sleek, a gadget that links your smart-home devices and gives you voice control over them all

    Ivee Sleek
    Brian Klutch

    394 percent: the increase in drug overdose deaths in rural America between 1999 and 2009

    13: the number of crocodile species known to eat fruit 

    Mmm, secret fruit
    Michal Osmenda via Wikimedia Commons

    90: the number of offspring a cardinal can have in its lifetime (See how that compares to an elephant's baby-making power)

    507 years: the age of the world's oldest animal

    30 minutes: the time it takes to make your own soldering stencil from a soda can

    Courtesy Felix Rusu


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    The Meat Lab
    Brian Klutch

    On an ordinary spring morning in Columbia, Missouri, Ethan Brown stands in the middle of an ordinary kitchen tearing apart a chicken fajita strip. “Look at this,” he says. “It’s amazing!” Around him, a handful of stout Midwestern food-factory workers lean in and nod approvingly. “I’m just so proud of it.”

    The meat Brown is pulling apart looks normal enough: beige flesh that separates into long strands. It would not be out of place in a chicken salad or Caesar wrap. Bob Prusha, a colleague of Brown’s, stands over a stove sautéing a batch for us to eat. But the meat Brown is fiddling with and Prusha is frying is far from ordinary. It’s actually not meat at all.

    Brown is the CEO of Beyond Meat, a four-year-old company that manufactures a meat substitute made mainly from soy and pea proteins and amaranth. Mock meat is not a new idea. Grocery stores are full of plant-based substitutes—the Boca and Gardenburgers of the world, not to mention Asian staples like tofu and seitan. What sets Beyond Meat apart is how startlingly meat-like its product is. The “chicken” strips have the distinct fibrous structure of poultry, and they deliver a similar nutritional profile. Each serving has about the same amount of protein as an equivalent portion of chicken, but with zero cholesterol or saturated and trans fats. 

    To Brown, there is little difference between his product and the real thing. Factory-farmed chickens aren’t really treated as animals, he says; they’re machines that transform vegetable inputs into chicken breasts. Beyond Meat simply uses a more efficient production system. Where one pound of cooked boneless chicken requires 7.5 pounds of dry feed and 30 liters of water, the same amount of Beyond Meat requires only 1.1 pound of ingredients and two liters of water.

    The ability to efficiently create meat, or something sufficiently meat-like, will become progressively more important in coming years because humanity may be reaching a point when there’s not enough animal protein to go around. The United Nations expects the global population to grow from the current 7.2 billion to 9.6 billion by 2050. Also, as countries such as China and India continue to develop, their populations are adopting more Western diets. Worldwide the amount of meat eaten per person nearly doubled from 1961 to 2007, and the UN projects it will double again by 2050. 

    In other words, the planet needs to rethink how it gets its meat. Brown is addressing the issue by supplying a near-perfect meat analogue, but he is not alone in reinventing animal products. Just across town, Modern Meadow uses 3-D printers and tissue engineering to grow meat in a lab. The company already has a refrigerator full of lab-grown beef and pork; in fact, the company’s co-founder, Gabor Forgacs, fried and ate a piece of engineered pork onstage at a 2011 TED talk. Another scientist, Mark Post at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, is also using tissue engineering to produce meat in a lab. In August, he served an entire lab-grown burger to two diners on a London stage as a curious but skeptical crowd looked on. 

    Chicken-Free Strips
    It took more than two decades to create a vegetable-based meat analogue with a consistency and texture similar to chicken; Whole Foods began selling the packaged Beyond Meat product in spring.
    Courtesy Beyond Meat
    Revolutions tend to appear revolutionary only from a distance, and as Brown walks me to the production floor, I’m struck by how similar the Beyond Meat factory looks to any other. Nondescript metal machinery churns away. Ingredients sit in plastic bulk-foods bins. We put on hairnets and white coats and walk over to a small blue conveyor belt, where Brown’s chicken strips emerge from the machinery cooked and in oddly rectilinear form. They are not yet seasoned, he says, but they are ready to eat. At the end of the conveyor belt, the still-steaming strips fall unceremoniously into a steel bucket, where they land with a dull thud.

    Staring at the bucketful of precooked strips, it’s hard to imagine a future in which meat is, by necessity, not meat. Or in which meat is grown in a manufacturing facility instead of a field or feedlot. But that future is fast approaching, and here in the heart of Big Ag country, both Beyond Meat and Modern Meadow are confronting it head on.

    Each year, Americans eat more than 200 pounds of meat per person, and mid-Missouri is as good a place as any to see what it takes to satisfy that appetite. Columbia sits dead center in the state, so approaching on I-70 from either direction means driving about two hours past huge tracts of farmland—soy, corn, and wheat fields and herds of grazing cattle. Giant truck stops glow on the horizon, and mile-long trains tug boxcars loaded with grain to places as far away as Mexico and California.

    Beyond Meat Factory
    in Columbia, Missouri, food scientists transform a mix of soy and pea proteins and amaranth into “chicken” strips.
    Courtesy Beyond Meat

    It’s rich country that for nearly 150 years has fed the nation and the world. Yet most of the crops grown around Columbia will never land on dining-room tables but rather in giant feedlot troughs. That’s not unusual. About 80 percent of the world’s farmland is used to support the meat and poultry industries, and much of that goes to growing animal feed. An efficient use of resources this is not. For example, a single pound of cooked beef, a family meal’s worth of hamburgers, requires 298 square feet of land, 27 pounds of feed, and 211 gallons of water. 

    Supplying meat not only devours resources but also creates waste. That same pound of hamburger requires more than 4,000 Btus of fossil-fuel energy to get to the dinner table; something has to power the tractors, feedlots, slaughterhouses, and trucks. That process, along with the methane the cows belch throughout their lives, contributes as much as 51 percent of all greenhouse gas produced in the world. 

    To understand how humans developed such a reliance on meat, it’s useful to start at the beginning. Several million years ago, hominids had large guts and smaller brains. That began to reverse around two million years ago: Brains got bigger as guts got smaller. The primary reason for the change, according to a seminal 1995 study by evolutionary anthropologist Leslie Aiello, then of the University College London, is that our ancestors started eating meat, a compact, high-energy source of calories. With meat, hominids did not need to maintain a large, energy-intense digestive system. Instead, they could divert energy elsewhere, namely to power big energy-hungry brains. And with those brains, they changed the world.

    As time progressed, meat became culturally important too. Hunting fostered cooperation; cooking and eating the kill brought communities together over shared rituals—as it still does in backyard barbecues. Neal Barnard, a nutrition author and physician at George Washington University, argues that today the cultural appeal of meat trumps any physiological benefits. “We have known for a long time that people who don’t eat meat are thinner and healthier and live longer than people who do,” he says. Nutritionally, meat is a good source of protein, iron, and vitamin B12, but  Barnard says those nutrients are easily available from other sources that aren’t also heavy in saturated fats. “For the millennia of our sojourn on Earth, we have been getting more than enough protein from entirely plant-based sources. The cow gets its protein that way and simply rearranges it into muscle. People say, ‘Gee if I don’t eat muscle, where will I get protein?’ You get it from the same place the cow got it.” 

    To Barnard, the simple conclusion is that everyone should stick to eating plants—and he’s right that it would be a far more efficient use of all that cropland. And yet to most people, meat tastes good. Studies suggest that eating meat activates the brain’s pleasure center in much the same way chocolate does. Even many vegetarians say bacon smells great when it’s cooking. For whatever reason, most people simply love to eat meat—myself included. And that makes
    re-creating it, whether from vegetables or cells in a lab, exceedingly difficult.

    * * *

    In the mid-1980s, a food scientist named Fu-hung Hsieh moved to Columbia, Missouri, to start a food-engineering program at the University of Missouri. Hsieh was coming to academia from a successful career in the processed-foods industry, at Quaker Oats, and he convinced the university to buy him a commercial-grade extrusion machine, nearly unheard of in an academic setting. 

    Modern Meadow
    Modern Meadow grows beef and pork cells in heated incubator
    Courtesy Modern Meadow

    An extruder is one of the processed-food industry’s most important and versatile pieces of equipment, the invention responsible for Froot Loops and Cheetos and premade cookie dough. Dry and wet ingredients are poured into a hopper on one end of the machine and a rotating auger pushes them through a long barrel, where they are subjected to varying levels of heat and pressure. At the barrel’s end, the ingredients pass through a die that forms them into whatever shape and texture the machine has been programmed to produce. The mixture emerges at the far end as a continuous ribbon of food, which is sliced into the desired portions. 

    On one level, an extruder is a simple piece of technology—something like a giant sausage maker—but producing the desired result can be devilishly complicated. “Some people say extrusion cooking is an art form,” says Harold Huff, a meat-loving Missouri native who works with Hsieh as a senior research specialist. Around 1989, Hsieh and Huff took an interest in using the extruder to make the first realistic meat analogue. “We didn’t worry about flavor or anything else,” Hsieh tells me. “We wanted it to tear apart like chicken—it was all just about initial appearance.” They knew there wasn’t a single physical or chemical adjustment that would bring about a solution. They just had to experiment. “You have to have the right ingredients, the right temperature, the right hardware,” Huff says. “You try things, make observations, and make adjustments” for years, even decades. And so it went, until Ethan Brown came calling in 2009.

    Brown, a vegan environmentalist, had been working for a fuel-cell company and had become frustrated by his colleagues’ ignorance of meat’s role in climate change. “We would go to conferences and sit there wringing our hands over all these [energy] issues, and then we’d go to dinner and people would order huge steaks,” he says. “I was like, ‘This is stupid, I want to go work on that problem.’ ” To the ridicule of old friends, who joked that he was moving to the country to start a tofu factory, he started poring over journal articles and casting around for meat analogues to market—which is how he heard about Hsieh’s work. 

    Brown licensed the veggie chicken and began fine-tuning it with the scientists for mass consumption. “If we used too much soy, it was too firm, and if we reduced it too much, it became soft, like tofu,” Brown remembers. “It took us two years to figure that out, and it’s still not perfect.”  

    Lab grown meat
    Karoly Jakab of Modern Meadow pulls a tray of lab-grown meat from a refrigerator
    Courtesy Modern Meadow

    As Brown and Hsieh refined the product, it began to gain notice. Bill Gates, who has adopted the meat-production crisis as one of his signature issues, published a report about the issue on his blog, The Gates Notes, in which he endorsed Beyond Meat as an important innovation. “I couldn’t tell the difference between Beyond Meat and real chicken,” he wrote. Perhaps more impressive, New York Times food correspondent and best-selling cookbook author Mark Bittman tried Beyond Meat in a blind taste test last year (at the behest of Brown, who served Bittman a burrito) and said that it “fooled me badly.” Twitter co-founder Biz Stone invested in the company last year, not long after the powerful Silicon Valley venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers bought a stake.

    “We are going to be meat. We’ll just be slaughtering plants instead of animals.”“One of the partners at Kleiner asked me to meet with Ethan and give them feedback, because they knew I was a vegan. I said yes, really as a favor,” Stone says. “I went into it thinking it’s going to be a boutiquey thing, for well-to-do vegans. Instead, I was introduced to this big-science approach. Ethan was talking about competing in the multibillion-dollar meat business. We are going to be meat, he said, we are just going to be slaughtering plants instead of animals. And here are all the ways it matters, in terms of global health, resource scarcity, number of people in the world. I was like, ‘Oh, my god. They are thinking completely differently.’”

    The day I visit, the factory in Columbia is humming because the company is preparing its first shipment of packaged product to Whole Foods, which agreed to sell it nationwide after a successful trial in some California stores. On the production floor, the extruder is roaring away, pumping out strips ready for seasoning, flash-freezing, or quick grilling. A digital readout shows the configuration of the die that gives Beyond Meat its chicken-like structure. It is the company’s secret sauce, the result of all those years of research, and Brown darts over to block my view of the readout as we approach. It’s the one thing that’s not entirely transparent about the operation. 

    Brown has set up a taste test: three plates of Beyond Meat in three preseasoned flavors. I pop one of the Southwest-flavored strips into my mouth, and it tastes, well, a bit like soy in the form of chicken, sprinkled with chipotle dust. That’s also how it chews—very chicken-like but somehow just shy of chicken. After all the buildup, I’m a little disappointed. But I also have the distinct impression that I’m eating something more like meat than veggies. And I’m eating it unadorned, as opposed to in Bittman’s burrito. 

    Over the course of the next month, I replace boneless chicken breasts with the lightly seasoned strips in various meals: an omelet with spinach and feta, a plate of fajitas, a wok-ful of fried rice. I’m never once fooled that it’s chicken. For me, chicken is the whole sensory package—crisp skin, the roasting pan, the juices—and when I want one, I make one. But when I want lean, chewy protein as a flavor medium in some other dish, I find I don’t care whether it comes from an animal or vegetable. But what if it comes from neither? 

    * * *

    On the other side of Columbia, at a biotech start-up incubator on the edge of the University of Missouri campus, the scientists at Modern Meadow are working on a very different solution to the meat-production crisis. When I visit, a 3-D printer about the size of an HP desktop unit streams a line of yellowish goo onto a petri dish. Back and forth, the machine creates a series of narrow rows a hair’s breadth apart. After covering a few inches of the dish, the printer switches direction and lays new rows atop the first ones in a crosshatch pattern. There’s no noise but an electric whir, no smell, nothing to suggest that the goo is an embryonic form of meat that will turn into a little sausage. Once the printer finishes its run, the result looks something like a large Band-Aid. 

    To reach this stage, about 700 million beef cells spent two weeks growing in a cell-growth medium in a wardrobe-size incubator. The cells were then spun free in a centrifuge, and the resulting slurry, which is the consistency of honey, was transferred to a large syringe that acts as the business end of the printer. 

    The printed cells will now go back into an incubator for a few more days, during which time they will start to develop an extracellular matrix, a naturally occurring scaffold of collagens that gives cells structural support. The result is actual muscle tissue. 

    The technology in front of me is the work of Gabor Forgacs, a Hungarian-born theoretical physicist who turned to developmental biology mid-career. In 2005, he led a team that developed a process to print multicellular aggregates rather than individual cells. His printer produces physiologically viable tubes of cells that can adhere to create large complex structures. 

    Modern Meadows Co-Founders
    Gabor and Andras Forgacs, the father and son co-founders of Modern Meadow
    Courtesy Modern Meadows

    In 2007, Gabor and his son, Andras, helped found a company called Organovo that uses Gabor’s technology to print human tissue for medical applications (pharmaceutical testing, for instance) and aims one day to print functioning human organs for transplants. Gabor was the science mind behind the company, and Andras worked in various roles on the business side. 

    “Fairly early on, people asked us, ‘Hey, could you make meat?’ ” Andras remembers. “And we were pretty dismissive of the idea”—it was simply too far from Organovo’s mission. But by 2011, Organovo had brought on a new management team and laid plans to go public (which it did in early 2012). Gabor began brainstorming new projects with his two closest scientific collaborators—Françoise Marga and Karoly Jakab. Andras, meanwhile, had moved to Shanghai to work in venture capital. He saw how diets in China were changing and how much of the meat came from places as far away as Latin America and Australia. 

    “If we can make living tissues, then we can certainly make food-grade ones.”That confluence of factors made bio-fabricated meat appear more attractive. Even better, Gabor suspected meat would be simpler to produce than functioning human parts. “If we can make living tissues, then certainly we can make food-grade tissues, which don’t have to be as exacting,” he says. “We do not have to worry about immune compatibility, for instance.” 

    In late 2011, Andras returned to the U.S., and the team landed a USDA Small Business Innovation Research grant shortly thereafter. It then received a grant from Breakout Labs, an arm of Peter Thiel’s foundation. (Thiel is a co-founder of PayPal and a tech investor and futurist.) With help from the grant, Andras set up a business office at Singularity University on the campus of NASA’s Silicon Valley research park, and Gabor set up his scientific headquarters in Columbia. Modern Meadow was born.

    As ghoulish as growing lab meat sounds, the concept has a long history, and not just in science fiction. In 1931, Winston Churchill wrote, “Fifty years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.” He was wrong about the date, but the same sentiment drives the meat-alternatives community today. If you consider the conditions under which meat is produced—how the animals are treated and how much waste is involved—factory farming, not tissue culture, seems the ghoulish option. By comparison, lab meat looks both humane and sensible; a study for the EU predicted that, if produced on a large scale, lab-grown meat would use 99.7 percent less land and 94 percent less water than factory farming, and it would contribute 98.8 percent fewer greenhouse gases.

    Over the past few decades, a handful of scientists have pursued lab-grown meat, most notably Mark Post in the Netherlands. Post created the burger for his London taste test using a different tissue-engineering process that involves growing cells around a cylindrical scaffold. According to Isha Datar, the director of New Harvest, a nonprofit research and advocacy group that focuses on meat alternatives, Post’s process may actually be “more amenable to mass production, theoretically” than Modern Meadow’s 3-D printing. On the other hand, Datar points to the head start Modern Meadow has: “It’s an actual business. The other groups are all academic, and you never know if they have the power to get out of the lab.” 

    By August, Modern Meadow was experimenting with other bio-assembly techniques that could quickly lay down large cell arrays. And Mark Post revealed his own high-profile Silicon Valley backer: Google co-founder Sergey Brin, whose track record bringing improbable products to market isn’t bad.

    But being first to market doesn’t matter if the meat coming out of the labs isn’t appetizing. Post’s burger got tepid reviews from his two tasters. And Modern Meadow’s current product is hardly even recognizable as meat; it lacks blood and fat, which are responsible for most of actual meat’s color, flavor, and juicy texture. Karoly Jakab shows me a couple of the samples he’s storing in the lab refrigerator: They look like tiny beige-gray sausages—fully grown, rolled-up versions of the Band-Aid I saw coming out the printer—about the size of an infant’s pinkie finger. 

    Lab-Grown Burger
    In August, Mark Post of Maastricht University in the Netherlands served a lab-grown hamburger to two diners. One said it “wasn’t unpleasant.”
    REUTERS/David Parry/poo

    To make the meat more appealing, Modern Meadow has enlisted the Chicago chef Homaro Cantu, whose restaurant, Moto, has become an icon of molecular gastronomy. For Modern Meadow, he’ll be working on what Andras calls “last-mile issues” like texture, flavor, appearance, and mouthfeel by, for instance, suggesting how much fat to add and what kind. And sometime in the next couple of years, Andras says, with Cantu’s help, Modern Meadow plans to start conducting invitation-only tasting sessions, where friends of the company will sign waivers and sample dishes.

    There will be plenty of technical hurdles just to get to that point, but putting lab-grown meat in the hands of the masses could be even trickier because there is no regulatory precedent. Meat falls under the USDA’s jurisdiction, but Andras expects the FDA to be involved too. “They have the sophistication and understanding of how tissue engineering works in medicine,” he says. Approval could take at least 10 years. 

    In the meantime, Modern Meadow needs to make money, so the team is focusing heavily on growing leather, which turns out to be easier than meat and won’t face as many regulatory hurdles. Gabor hands me a pepperoni-size disc of dark-brown leather, indistinguishable from the stuff used in one of my favorite pairs of shoes. It even smells like leather. It is leather. Much as the company is partnering with chef Cantu on perfecting the meat, it’s in talks with fashion brands and automakers to create products with the lab-grown leather.

    * * *

    Ethan Brown folds his lanky frame into one of the metal chairs at the Main Squeeze, an organic juice café in downtown Columbia, and begins talking about how he’ll define success for Beyond Meat in the near term. “I want to be in the meat aisle,” he says. “You go to the grocery store, and they sell meat in one section and vegetable-based proteins in another section. Why are they penalizing the non-meat?” He points to the rise of soy milk and its eventual inclusion in the dairy aisle—which helped to drive a 500 percent increase in sales since 1997—as his model.

    Ethan Brown
    Ethan Brown of Beyond Meat
    Jennifer Smith/Beyond Meat

    “Our earliest adopters are the vegans and locavore types who prefer tofu and beans and quinoa,” he says. “But the sweet spot for us is folks who are simply cutting down on their meat consumption. They still eat at Taco Bell, but they know they shouldn’t do it that much.” 

    There’s an uncanny valley of food. Until engineered meat is perfect, it will be creepy.

    Appealing to those people with a near-perfect imitation of meat makes sense on one level. But there’s also a risk, Andras Forgacs says. In the world of animation and robotics, there’s a concept called the “uncanny valley,” which states that if a simulated human too closely resembles the real thing, it will repel people. “There’s also an uncanny valley of food,” Andras says. “Until it becomes perfect, it’s going to be creepy.”

    I’ve seen the uncanny valley response up close, when I’ve tried to serve my wife Beyond Meat. She has no problem eating processed meats that bear no resemblance to the animal they come from: hot dogs, say, or on the high end, goose liver pâté. And she’ll eat other soy proteins, such as tofu, that don’t pretend to be meat. But she won’t touch Beyond Meat. To her, it imitates the real thing just a little too closely.

    Modern Meadow may simply back away from the uncanny valley, rather than try to cross it.  “I have an analogy that goes back to Organovo,” Gabor says. “We will never be able to print a heart exactly as it appears in nature—but we don’t have to. What we need is to create an organ that functions as well as your heart, or better, from your own cells so that it works in your body. That we can do. And the same goes for meat. What we are going to put into your mouth is not what you’d get when you slaughter a cow. But from all other points of view—nutritional value, taste—it will be just like the real thing. You recognize it as meat, but it’s a different kind of meat.” Like a hot dog or goose liver pâté.

    And if fake meat doesn’t have to perfectly mimic real meat, it can be made even better than the real thing. The teams at Beyond Meat and Modern Meadow envision super meats enhanced with things like omega-3 fatty acids and extra vitamins. “You could eat a Beyond Meat Philly cheesesteak that lowers your cholesterol and gives you sexual prowess,” Brown says. He is only half joking.

    However they move forward, neither company envisions its product entirely replacing meat, nor do they see themselves as being in competition with each other. Isha Datar of New Harvest predicts a portfolio of approaches that would address the meat-production crisis: lab-grown meat and plant-based meats, yes, but also sustainably raised livestock and less meat-intensive diets. A 2012 study at the University of Exeter in the U.K. calculated the degree to which diets must change in order to feed the world in 2050 and stave off catastrophic climate change. The researchers found that average global meat consumption would have to decrease from 16.6 percent of average daily calorie intake to 15 percent. That may not sound like much, but it translates to roughly halving the amount of meat in Western diets—a major change, but conceivable with high-quality meat alternatives. 

    One theme cuts through all those visions of the future: Educated consumers who have the benefit of total transparency into the meat-production process. Brown has considered installing cameras on the Beyond Meat production floor and streaming the video online so people can see for themselves how harmless the process is. The contrast to the secretive policies of industrial slaughterhouses would be stark.

    Andras Forgacs
    Andras Forgacs of Modern Meadow
    Courtesy Modern Medows

    Andras Forgacs imagines something even more dramatic. He pictures Modern Meadow’s production facilities as regional petting zoos. “You’d need to replenish the cell source periodically so all we’d really need is a few animals from which we could take occasional biopsies. They’d be like mascots. Other than getting poked every month or so, they would lead these perfectly charmed lives.” People could come meet the animals as they grazed and then make their way into a facility to watch a giant 3-D printer stream the cells onto trays, where they would grow into pork chops and steaks. 

    “Would you rather visit a slaughterhouse and see a cow get killed, skinned, and disemboweled right before you go eat a steak dinner, or would you rather visit a petting zoo and a facility that looks a little Willy Wonka–ish and then go eat the meat right afterward?”

    It’s a dream, but Andras insists it’s not outlandish. “Bio-fabrication already exists, and it’s inevitable that in the coming decades there will be applications beyond medicine—consumer applications, like food.” The question is whether the world will be ready for them. 

    Tom Foster’s last piece for Popular Science, about the Leap Motion interface, appeared in the August issue. This article originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of Popular Science.


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    Backpack Bridge
    courtesy Utah State University

    The Problem

    If U.S. Special Forces agents need to scale a wall, traverse a canal, or cross between rooftops, they typically use an everyday 40-pound aluminum ladder. That means one of them has to carry it in addition to the standard 150 pounds of gear and body armor. It’s heavy and requires both hands—hands that may have to fire a gun at any moment. There has to be a better way.

    The Solution

    The BAMBI (Break-Apart Mobile Bridging and Infiltration) device is a modular bridge that weighs 27 pounds and can be strapped to a backpack. The prototype, created by engineering students at Utah State University, has six sections composed of carbon-fiber tubes and a foam platform. Together, they create a 22-foot-long structure that can hold 350 pounds. A sandy finish provides enough traction to use it as a ramp over a 15-foot wall.  

    This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of  Popular Science.


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    Live streaming video by Ustream

    We're going to Mars today! The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission, or MAVEN for short, is set to blast off this afternoon, Eastern Time in the U.S. On Friday, we brought you details about MAVEN's preparations and science mission. Here, you'll find a primer on other basics you need to know before the launch, including MAVEN's expected lifetime, whether MAVEN will meet MOM, and how to watch the launch.

    When and where will the launch be?

    The first launch window NASA is aiming for covers 1:28 to 3:28 p.m. EST. The craft will blast off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Over the weekend, NASA officials said they planned to stream launch preparations live starting at 11:00 am EST. We've seen a few shots of Cape Canaveral at that link already.

    There is a chance the craft won't lift off today. On Sunday, NASA officials said there's a 40 percent chance of a no-go today because of cloud cover. The craft could still take advantage of launch windows—times during which Earth and Mars are positioned just right so that MAVEN will rendezvous correctly with Mars—on Tuesday and Wednesday. However, both those days are more likely to be cloudy, with about a 60 percent chance of a no-go on both days. 

    photo of MAVEN and Atlas V rocket with a full moon
    Maven and Its Atlas V Rocket, Night of November 17, 2013
    At Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 41 in Florida
    NASA/Bill Ingalls

    What is MAVEN studying?

    You can learn more about what MAVEN is going to Mars to study in our story from last Friday. In short, the craft is taking a special orbit around Mars to sample many parts of the planet's upper atmosphere and learn more about the processes that are occurring there now. From that data, scientists will estimate what happened in Mars' past, billions of years ago, when scientists think the planet had large bodies of liquid water and a thick atmosphere. Both are now gone.

    MAVEN compared in length and weight to an SUV and school bus
    Maven Size Comparison

    How soon can we expect MAVEN to start sending scientific data back to Earth?

    This will be a 10-month trip for MAVEN, which will enter orbit around Mars in September 2014. After that, it will take another five weeks for MAVEN to get into its designated orbit and test its instruments. Once it starts taking measurements, MAVEN will send data back home twice a week. Of course, engineers will communicate with the craft before that to perform maneuvers, check on the craft's health and test its instruments. 

    How long will MAVEN's mission last?

    MAVEN's primary science-gathering mission is supposed to last one Earth year. The project may be renewed for one or two additional years of science. After that, the craft may act as a backup communications relay for other vehicles already on Mars' surface. "If things go their way, we can continue to operate as long as 10 years," Bruce Jakosky, a planetary scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the lead for MAVEN's scientific studies, said during a press conference Sunday.

    It seems like we've been sending a lot of spacecraft to Mars lately. What's with that?

    President Barack Obama directed NASA to send humans to Mars by the 2030s, and the most recent missions have, in part, examined some of the technologies we'll need to get there. For example, the Curiosity rover tested NASA's ability to land a one-metric-ton payload on the surface of Mars. Engineers estimate that a human mission would need to land at least 40 metric tons at once.

    Curiosity and MAVEN are also looking for minerals and chemicals on Mars' surface and in its atmosphere that people could use in situ, as scientists say. "We need to understand how to use the resources in the environment where we are," William Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for human exploration and operations, says. Curiosity already found some water people may be able to isolate from the Martian soil. 

    NASA has always been interested in our red neighbor. After the Mariner and Viking missions in the 1960s and 1970s, NASA has sent missions to Mars every few years since the 1990s. 

    India launched its Mars Orbiter Mission earlier this month. Will MOM and MAVEN meet?

    If everything goes as planned for both missions, MAVEN will reach Mars a few days before MOM. MOM will take some related, but not identical, measurements as MAVEN. It's likely the two science teams will compare data after they're collected, Jakosky says. 

    How long has the MAVEN mission been in the works?

    Jakosky says he originally had the idea for MAVEN's atmospheric mission 10 years ago.

    Either MAVEN or a competitor was originally supposed to launch in 2011, but, in 2007, NASA staff discovered one of the finalists for the mission—not MAVEN—hadn't disclosed a conflict of interest "related to procurement," reported at the time. NASA scrapped the finalist, as well as the evaluation panel. The fresh start meant the mission got pushed to the 2013 launch window for Mars. MAVEN, which had been a finalist in 2007, made it to the top after the second round of calls for proposals.

    How much will MAVEN cost? 

    $671 million over its full life cycle.


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    Leonardo da Vinci, in between doing stuff like painting the best-known piece of art in the world, apparently had time to sketch up a quick blueprint for an instrument: the "viola organista," a piano-violin hybrid that he never built. It looks just like a piano, and plays like one, too, but instead of the hammers that connect to strings and play notes, cranks wrapped with horse-hair like violin bows rub the strings. The resulting sound is familiar but strange, something like a church organ that's just a little on the tipsy side.

    Polish concert pianist Slawomir Zubrzycki built the instrument from da Vinci's original plans, and recently unveiled it to a live audience at Poland's Academy of Music, which you can check out here. Multi-talented! Maybe he can look into da Vinci's human-powered flight plans next.

    [Sydney Morning Herald]


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    illustration of the phosphoprotein in Nipah virus
    Nipah Virus Phosphoprotein Structure

    This symmetric tangle of telephone wires (Remember those?) represents a key protein in the Nipah virus. Nipah is an emerging human illness originally found in fruit bats in Southeast Asia and Australia. People who become infected react in a range of ways, from no symptoms to coma and death. The mortality rate is high, comprising 75 percent of recorded cases.

    Researchers from the U.S. and the U.K. recently discovered and published the structure of this protein, called a phosphoprotein, or Nipah virus' P protein. The P protein helps Nipah virus replicate in its host. There's still some debate about what it looks like, exactly—an earlier, lower-resolution study of its structure found it had three subunits, not four, as this new study found.

    Knowing the virus' P protein structure is important to developing medications against the illness. There's no vaccine for Nipah virus and scientists are only just starting to test whether drug treatments work to treat infections. Because of its high mortality rate and lack of cures, it's considered a biosafety level 4 pathogen.

    Scientists first saw outbreaks of Nipah virus in people in 1998. Outbreaks since then have been small—a few dozen people or fewer—but devastating. Experts are especially worried about viruses that, like Nipah, originate in animals, but are able to pass to people. Such so-called zoonotic viruses are a likely reservoir for pandemics, journalist David Quammen reported in his recent book, Spillover. The spread of agriculture in Nipah's native environment contributed to its jump from bats to people. 


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    Virgin Mary
    De Agostini/A. De Gregorio/Getty Images

    Virgin birth, known to scientists as parthenogenesis, appears to be rather common in the animal kingdom. Many insects and other invertebrates are capable of switching between sexual and clonal reproduction. Among the vertebrates, virgin births have been documented in at least 80 taxonomic groups, including fish, amphibians, and reptiles. But humans and our fellow mammals provide a notable exception. So far as anyone can say—and there are a few gaps in the data, notably the platypus—no mammalian species is capable of giving birth without a father.

    So what stands in the way? First, a mammal’s egg cell usually won’t divide until it receives a signal from the sperm. Second, most mammalian eggs have only half the number of chromosomes necessary for development. If there isn’t any sperm, the embryo will end up with only half the DNA it needs to survive. 

    Both of those barriers could potentially be overcome in the lab or through random mutation, but there is a third obstacle that probably can’t be. Under normal conditions, the DNA in both egg and sperm cells is altered such that some genes will be more active while others are suppressed. When the egg and sperm join to form an embryo, these imprints work in tandem, ensuring that all the necessary proteins are produced in the right amounts. If an egg cell starts reproducing on its own, without the sperm-cell imprint, the offspring won’t survive for very long. 

    Scientists estimate that imprinting affects about 200 different genes. For parthenogenesis to occur, many of these changes would have to occur through random mutation. “I just think it’s too complex and you’d need too many things to happen accidentally,” says Marisa Bartolomei, a molecular geneticist at the University of Pennsylvania. While highly unlikely, it’s still theoretically possible that scientists could one day induce the necessary changes in the lab. “Is there a mutation that could eliminate all imprinting, so we would see that we didn’t need Dad or Mom in order to have normal development?” Bartolomei asks. “This is a question that people have asked a lot, and we don’t know the answer.”

    This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of Popular Science.


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    Photo: Oskar Danielsson

    I’m not a gambler, but YouTube videos of horse races are my Monday Night Football. Always rooting for the underdog (i.e. the one with the weirdest name), I love watching them pound down the backstretch at highway speeds to win by centimeters. Tragic losses are just as heart-rending. Maybe it’s their power, or their lack of it at the command of their jockeys, but horse-racing gets to me way more than human racing. (Why does “human racing” suddenly sound so barbaric?)

    Probably the most devastating horse race of all YouTube--the one I queue up when I’m in need of a good weep--is the 1990 Breeders’ Cup. Go for Wand (see? weird name) leads pretty much the whole way. One by one the other horses drop off as Go for Wand and Bayakoa gallop furiously past the poles. As they round the final turn, Go for Wand edges her nose ahead. Her kick is starting. It looks like she might win, but it’s a nail-biter. Then, in a second, she crumples, rolls tail over head, her jockey thrown to the infield. It’s so sudden you’re not really sure what happened until you see the horse scramble to vertical, three legs hobbling toward the finish line, a fourth graphically dangling like an empty sleeve. She was euthanized on the track moments later.

    Professional sports--all species included--are synonymous with injury. As has recently been mentioned in the midst of the NFL concussions lawsuit, training to be a professional athlete is a fine line between being in peak physical condition and being broken. It’s the same for Thoroughbred horses, but they can’t voice when they are too tired to work out, or when they’re feeling sore. In the past, trainers could measure horses’ heart-rates and generally gage their well-being after a workout, but when they’re running at upwards of 35 miles per hour it’s impossible to tell how they’re feeling. A group of university researchers in Australia is now using technology developed for monitoring pro athletes (human ones) to get enhanced bio-feedback on horses in motion.

    “Riders and trainers are looking for ways to improve the performance. The racing industry wants to study the pulse in an as easy a way as possible,” said Johanna Ternstrom, a master’s student at the University of Gothenburg and Chalmers University of Technology working to develop smart textiles for equine sports. The idea, Ternstrom said, came from technology already in use in sports bras and chest bands that monitor our pro athletes' heart rates, with one tricky difference: "Humans don't have fur." Ternstrom uses similar commercial fabrics that stretch and wick sweat and her sensors must be just as small and flexible, but they have to pick up a heartbeat and respiration patterns without direct skin contact. “At the moment, two different types of smart textiles have been used on horses,” she explained, “One of them is a textile ECG sensor that can measure heart rate, heart rate variability, etc. The other textile is an elongation sensor. At the moment we are using this textile to study if the girth on the saddle contracts the muscles around the horse’s chest. It actually seems like our sensors could be used in human healthcare as well, enabling measurements through a person's clothes.”

    A horse's heart rate measured during exercise.
    Photo: Oskar Danielsson

    This kind of monitoring promises to greatly reduce overtraining injuries by offering up direct feedback on the bodily stress a horse is experiencing--something trainers often try to push through. In a recent interview with The Washingtonian, Stuart Janney III, the owner of 2013 Kentucky Derby winner Orb, said, “I think the problem with the Triple Crown is that for so many people, they simply want to get there, so they overlook the little aches and pains, the little immaturities, or whatever it is about the horse.” Since a horse can’t complain, trainers are quick to overlook a limp in the face of exorbitant prize money.

    Being in the national--er, international--spotlight has the same effect on human athletes. Even though Nike is widely considered at the top of the smart sports gear field, Adidas just came out with one of the coolest products to reduce overtraining injuries in recent years. After years of testing with professional soccer teams around the world, they released their “MiCoach Elite Team System” in July 2012 and started rolling out toned-down consumer versions this October. I called up Qaizar Hassonjee, VP of development and commercialization for Adidas global wearable sports, to figure out how this schmancy system works.

    Courtesy of Adidas

    Like with horses, Hassonjee said “It’s hard for a coach to know how all of his players on the field are feeling at once.” With the Elite Team System, a shirt or sports bra with a sensor embedded at the back of players’ necks sends real-time data to the coach’s iPad on the sidelines, telling him which players are most tired, when they’ve reached a preset heart rate goal, and other vital stats. “They can understand the condition of every player,” said Hassonjee. “If they're getting fatigued you can give them rest so they don't get injured, but it can also reduce overtraining.” Since debuting at the 2012 MLS All-Star game, all 19 MLS teams have adopted the system.

    The sensors are admittedly pretty bulky in this preliminary stage, which could definitely be a turn-off to pro athletes, but Hassonjee says they hope to make them completely undetectable. And they're on the right track; Adidas purchased Textronics Inc. in 2008, a company whose tagline is “Energy-activated fabrics”. One of their most relevant products is the NuMetrex sports bra, which has tiny heart rate monitoring sensors built into the band, but it looks like the tricky part will be slimming down the 1995-desktop-computer-tower-sized hub that delivers the data to the coach’s iPad app.

    Ternstrom's smart textiles are, so far, pretty rudimentary too, but they're already helping companies that produce bridles and saddles develop equipment that is more comfortable and less taxing on horses. For Hassonjee, he hopes Adidas' Team System can translate to consumers and inspire researchers like Ternstrom to adapt it for even more uses. "Right now everyone is more interested in monitoring fitness and well-being," he said. "You see a lot of devices measuring activity, but the challenge is to interpret that so it's understandable and relevant." If a sports bra—or saddle band—is comfortable and its data is clear, Hassonjee said, every athlete will train safer and perform better.


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    Iran's Fotros Drone
    Iran's latest unmanned flying camera with bombs.
    Al Alam

    Today Iran unveiled the Fotros drone, their largest unmanned aircraft to date. According to Iranian state-affiliated news agency Fars, the Fotros can fly up to 1,250 miles and stay airborne between 16 and 30 hours at an altitude of 25,000 feet. While new for Iran, these stats put the drone squarely between the U.S. Air Force's Predator (which can fly just as high for just as long, but at less range) and Reaper (which can fly higher, at nearly the same range, for just as long). It's an additional tool for Iran, but this is hardly an arms race of apocalyptic proportions.

    The weirdest thing about the "drones arms race," if indeed there is one, is that these drones will never fight other drones. Previous arms races, like the early 20th century one over battleships or the Cold War competition over ever-improving high-end fighter jets, were about vehicles designed outfight one another. Even the main debate in naval circles right now, about how best to overcome new anti-ship weapons, involves technologies designed to counter each other.

    Drones like the Fotros, or its American counterpart the Reaper, aren't really like that—at least not yet. These are slow planes, designed primarily for reconnaissance and surveillance; they serve as flying cameras that sometimes drop bombs. That makes them bad at air-to-air combat, where they have to depend on other airplanes and anti-air weapons to support them. For the United States, which is skilled at shooting down opposing aircraft, this means it's not too hard to clear the skies so that Reapers can fly their full 1,150-mile range with relative impunity. Iran's Fotros, despite its claimed range of around 1,250 miles, is limited not only by the drone itself, but also by the availability of protection by the Iranian Air Force.

    It's possible that Fotros is Iran's most capable, longest-range drone. Just don't expect Iran to start fighting using drones like the United States does without a considerable improvement in the rest of the Iranian Air Force first.

    Fotros Unveiling Ceremony
    Al Alam

    On the plus side for Iran, this one doesn't seem to be held together by duct tape, isn't an explicit hoax, and doesn't claim to be stealth when it clearly isn't.


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