Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Back in September, The Verge recapped the Netflix documentary about the life of Bill Gates in the following manner:

“Each episode of Inside Bill’s Brain focuses on one of the foundation’s major initiatives: improving sewage conditions in developing countries, eradicating polio, and developing a cleaner, safer form of nuclear power. Each of the three parts shifts rapidly between interviews, biographical material, and fly-on-the-wall footage of the Gates team’s philanthropic missions. Guggenheim eschews traditional transitions, and instead jumps from subject to subject, even when there’s no clear connection between them. The point, apparently, is to replicate Bill Gates’ thought processes. Having spent most of his adult life (and even some of his teenage years) juggling multiple complicated projects, Gates doesn’t have the kind of mind that functions in neat, straight lines.”

Now, just two months later, it seems that Netflix may want to order a second season.  For Gates was apparently juggling another complicated project this whole time: a company that could revolutionize solar energy and make a significant impact in the fight against Climate Change.

According to CNN:

Heliogen, a clean energy company that emerged from stealth mode on Tuesday, said it has discovered a way to use artificial intelligence and a field of mirrors to reflect so much sunlight that it generates extreme heat above 1,000 degrees Celsius.

Essentially, Heliogen created a solar oven — one capable of reaching temperatures that are roughly a quarter of what you’d find on the surface of the sun.

The breakthrough means that, for the first time, concentrated solar energy can be used to create the extreme heat required to make cement, steel, glass and other industrial processes. In other words, carbon-free sunlight can replace fossil fuels in a heavy carbon-emitting corner of the economy that has been untouched by the clean energy revolution.”

This is a tremendous breakthrough.  One that further cements Gates legacy as the greatest technophilanthropist of our time and begs the question: what subject is he going to jump to next?

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Is Heliogen the Greatest Idea Ever?

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#1,576 – Unsinkable Metal

It may be too late to save the Titanic but that hasn’t stopped scientists from inventing an unsinkable metal that could be used in the construction of floating cities or to help ships stay afloat.

According to Business Insider, “The scientists used lasers to carve tiny grooves into the surface of an aluminum disk. These etchings trapped air, forming a protective barrier that caused water droplets to slide off the metal surface.

But if the metal was held underwater long enough, the grooves would eventually fill up with water instead of air, the researchers found. So they placed two of the etched metal disks on either end of a small pillar, with the etched sides facing inward. They left a gap in the center that’s small enough to prevent water from entering. That creates an air bubble that helps the array to float.”

But that’s not all!  Far from the ocean this research could even help out in developing countries.

“Guo’s research has also shown that just a few droplets of water are sufficient to rid the metal of dirt. So he’s been working with the Gates Foundation to understand how these properties could improve sanitation in developing countries. Latrines made out of similar etched metal, for example, could be easier to clean.”

At this rate this new material may be more than unsinkable.  It may soon be unstoppable.

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Is an unsinkable metal the Greatest Idea Ever?

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#1,575 – MediSieve

They power MRI machines, make stereos, earphones, and televisions possible, and help us store data in computers.  They even help seal the doors to refrigerators and freezers.  Magnets as it turns out, are extremely useful, and are instrumental in the development and deployment of several key technologies.  And now we can add one more trick to their resume: curing diseases.  For it may soon be possible to remove diseases from our blood using the power of magnetism! A neat trick that shouldn’t be all that hard to pull off.

As Futurism reports:

“Thanks to existing research, biochemical scientist George Frodsham knew it was possible to force magnetic nanoparticles to bind to specific cells in the body. But while other researchers did so primarily to make those cells show up in images, he wondered whether the same technique might allow doctors to remove unwanted cells from the blood.

‘When someone has a tumor you cut it out,’ he told The Telegraph. ‘Blood cancer is a tumor in the blood, so why not just take it out in the same way?’

To that end, he created MediSieve, a treatment technology that works similarly to dialysis, by removing a patient’s blood and infusing it with magnetic nanoparticles designed to bind to a specific disease. It then uses magnets to draw out and trap those cells before pumping the filtered blood back into the patient.

The idea is that doctors could run a person’s blood through the machine several times until their levels of the disease are low enough to be wiped out by drugs or even the patient’s own immune system.”

Personally, I love this idea as it’s an ingenious solution that takes advantage of existing technologies and scientific knowledge.  A leveling up of skills that is the hallmark of scientific endeavor.  Hopefully, it winds up working as well in practice as in theory.

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Is MediSieve the Greatest Idea Ever?

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#1,573 – Prime Editing

Of all the new ideas, scientific breakthroughs, and transformative technologies that I’ve written about, CRISPR-CAS-9 gene editing has the chance to make the biggest impact; saving the world several times over by eradicating diseases and creating more sustainable crops and biofuels.  It also pales in comparison to a new gene editing technique that may very well have the potential to cure almost all diseases.

As Wired explains, “The system, which [David] Liu’s lab has dubbed ‘prime editing,’ can for the first time make virtually any alteration—additions, deletions, swapping any single letter for any other—without severing the DNA double helix. “If Crispr-Cas9 is like scissors and base editors are like pencils, then you can think of prime editors to be like word processors,” Liu told reporters in a press briefing.

Why is that a big deal? Because with such fine-tuned command of the genetic code, prime editing could, according to Liu’s calculations, correct around 89 percent of the mutations that cause heritable human diseases. Working in human cell cultures, his lab has already used prime editors to fix the genetic glitches that cause sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis, and Tay-Sachs disease. Those are just three of more than 175 edits the group unveiled…”

Considering the challenges associated with gene-editing – the precision required, the specific instructions needed, the blind faith in the cell’s machinery to follow the instructions and make the required edits – it’s no surprise that if often doesn’t go according to plan.  For all its promise, it’s far from full-proof.  Prime editing on the other hand, is light years beyond CAS-9’s capabilities.  As David Liu put it, we’re talking about the difference between crudely using scissors to make edits and using Microsoft word to cut and paste.

Here’s exactly how it works:

“prime editor is a little different. Its enzyme is actually two that have been fused together—a molecule that acts like a scalpel combined with something called a reverse transcriptase, which converts RNA into DNA. His RNA guide is a little different too: It not only finds the DNA in need of fixing, but also carries a copy of the edit to be made. When it locates its target DNA, it makes a little nick, and the reverse transcriptase starts adding the corrected sequence of DNA letter by letter, like the strikers on a typewriter. The result is two redundant flaps of DNA—the original and the edited strand. Then the cell’s DNA repair machinery swoops in to cut away the original (marked as it is with that little nick), permanently installing the desired edit.”

Now, prime editing isn’t perfect.  The size of these larger molecules may be difficult to deliver into the body.  Mistakes can still happen.  But at the very least it shows us what’s possible.  Shows us that when it comes to gene editing we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of what may be possible.

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Is Prime Editing the Greatest Idea Ever?

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Long a staple of science fiction, the idea of creating designer babies may soon come to fruition thanks to Genomic Prediction, a New Jersey based company promising to unveil a screening test capable of rooting out several illnesses and less desirable traits.

M.I.T. Technology Review adds:  “Handed report cards on a batch of frozen embryos, parents can use the test results to try to choose the healthiest ones. The grades include risk estimates for diabetes, heart attacks, and five types of cancer.  According to flyers distributed by the company, it will also warn clients about any embryo predicted to become a person who is among the shortest 2% of the population, or who is in the lowest 2% in intelligence.”

The last part is going to be worrisome to ethicists fearful of eugenic campaigns that could target certain features or groups of people.  If the technology is ever going to become prevalent it’s going to have to clear moral, ethical, and legal hurdles along those lines.  And while I see their point I can’t help but wonder if Genomic Prediction is on the right track.  Instead of spending millions of dollars trying to cure cancer we could decrease the likelihood that it ever occurs in the first place.  Medical costs would be reduced.  Lifespans lengthened.  The dream of every parent – to ensure that their child has a healthy and happy life – kept intact. It’s a win-win situation all around.  Or is it?

Well, that’s where things get interesting.  While we can all agree that rooting out illness is a good thing, editing for desirable traits like intelligence blurs the moral lines, starting us down a slippery slope where we play God, take control over evolutionary forces that we don’t fully understand, and wind up creating an alternate species of genetically enhanced people who declare war on those they deem to be inferior.  Far-fetched? Perhaps.  Beyond the realm of possibility? Definitely not.

Personally, I feel like it’s worth the risk.  Any opportunity that we have to push the envelope, to develop new technologies, to surpass our natural limits – is an opportunity well worth taking IMO.  Just as it was with Stem Cell research.  Just as it’s going to be with AI going forward.  Holding ourselves back out of fear of the unknown is just going to hold us back in the long run.  Instead we should be cognizant of the risks and plan accordingly around them.  Put in safeguards to ensure that this new technology develops in lock step with our moral guidelines.  That way we can ensure that we gain the advantages that the technology affords us without running into any of the backlash that often accompanies breakthrough technologies.

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Is Genomic Prediction the Greatest Idea Ever?

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#1,571 – The Blob

It lacks a central nervous system and brain, yet is still able to learn, make decisions, and retrieve memories.  It lacks a mouth and stomach, yet still digests food.  It lacks legs, fins, wings, and appendages of any kind for that matter, yet still moves.  Cut it in half and it can regenerate in just two minutes.  It can also double in size daily and grow to a size several square kilometers wide while being remarkably hard to kill.  It’s quite possibly the weirdest living organism, upending everything we thought we knew about the nature of intelligence.  Welcome to the wonderful world of slime molds, organisms so bizarre that scientists struggle to even classify them.  Are they a fungus? Not quite.  An animal? Not exactly.  Bereft a fitting description, unable to be pigeonholed, they are an evolutionary miracle, proof that there’s more than one way for life to evolve.  And now there’s a new king of all slime molds – the latest entrant to the Paris Zoo – known affectionately as The Blob.

As Wired puts it, “For a long time, scientists thought that slime molds were a kind of fungus, since they had similar life cycles and seemed to like hanging out in the dark, damp environments favored by fungi.  Scientists now think that slime molds are closer to amoeba. And like amoeba, slime molds consist of a single cell and tend to move by reaching out little creeping arm-like limbs called pseudopods.  The Blob—or to give it its more formal name, Physarum polycephalum—belongs to a subset of slime molds known as plasmodial slime molds. These are made up of a single gigantic cell that contains thousands of nuclei, formed when lots of individual cells get together.”

But as weird as all that is that’s not even the weirdest part.  That’s because The Blob is gaining notoriety for it’s unusual sexual prowess for having not one, not two, not three, but 720 different sexes!  An apparent evolutionary design that prevents it from reproducing with itself.  Just don’t ask me why that is, how it works, or what pronoun it chooses to identify with.

Which is why Forbes ponders, “But what is the blob? We don’t know for sure. It shares traits with the three major kingdoms of life: it eats like an animal, breeds like a mushroom, and is colored like a plant.”

At this rate I’m not sure that calling it weird even does it justice.  So, in addition to figuring out a way to classify it scientifically we may also need to come up with a new adjective to describe it in layman terms.  Blobalicious perhaps?  All I know is that it’s awesome and that I love it.  Long live The Blob!


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Is The Blob the Greatest Idea Ever?

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#1,561 – Week In Review

A quick look at everything that tickled my fancy this past week:

Soft Tactile Logic

We assume that having a high level of intelligence is predicated by having a central nervous system but that may not necessarily be the case.

As Science Daily reports, “Inspired by octopuses, researchers have developed a structure that senses, computes and responds without any centralized processing — creating a device that is not quite a robot and not quite a computer, but has characteristics of both. The new technology holds promise for use in a variety of applications, from soft robotics to prosthetic devices.

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DNA Storage

As we continue to create terabytes of information on a daily basis we’re going to need to come up with new methods of being able to store and retrieve that information.  To that end Israeli researchers have reached an incredible breakthrough involving DNA.

According to the Jerusalem Post, “the group demonstrated storage of information in a density of more than 10 petabytes, or ten million gigabytes, in a single gram, while significantly improving the writing process. This, theoretically, allows for storing all the information stored on YouTube in a single teaspoon.

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Universal Blood

It soon may be possible to convert Type A blood into the universally accepted Type O thanks to a newly discovered microbe that resides in our gut.

According to Futurism:

“In a study published on Monday in the journal Nature Microbiology, researchers from the University of British Columbia detail their discovery of microbes in the human gut that produce two enzymes that efficiently strip type A blood of its antigens, transforming it into type O.

The team plans to conduct further studies to ensure the process removes all the blood antigens. If it does, all that converted type A blood would nearly double the amount of universal donor blood available — and we’d have the human gut to thank.”

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New Organ

Speaking of the human body it turns out that we have an additional organ lurking underneath our skin that we were unaware of.  An organ that may be responsible for why we feel pain.

National Geographic explains, “Dubbed the nociceptive glio-neural complex, this structure is not quite like the typical picture of a complex organ like the heart or the spleen. Instead, it’s a simple organ made up of a network of cells called glial cells, which are already known to surround and support the body’s nerve cells. In this case, the glial cells form a mesh-like structure between the skin’s outer and inner layers, with filament-like protrusions that extend into the skin’s outer layer.”

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Are any of these the Greatest Idea Ever?

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