Bio-technology

One of the objections to creating genetically engineered organisms is that material from one species gets incorporated into another, entirely different species. This is seen, somehow, as unnatural. But humans aren’t the only ones that do this:

“Horizontal gene transfer, the movement of genetic material from one organism into the genome of another species, is very common in microbes and is a major way that bacteria can acquire antibiotic resistance,” said Claude dePamphilis, professor of biology at Penn State and senior author of the study. “We don’t see many examples of horizontal gene transfer in complex organisms like plants, and when we do see it, the transferred genetic material isn’t generally used. In this study, we present the most dramatic case known of functional horizontal gene transfer ever found in complex organisms.”

A study from Penn State and Virginia Tech shows the parasitic plant dodder has “stolen” over 100 genes from its host plants, and moreover, many of the foreign genes are functional. The new genes improve dodder’s ability to extract nutrients from host plants. They also send genetic material back to those hosts that cripple their defenses.

Another study, this one from Rutgers, shows that red algae that live in hot springs steal genes from bacteria in order to cope with their extreme environment.

“The role of stolen genes in eukaryotes, which include most living things such as , has been hotly debated and many think it is unimportant and plays little to no role in their biology,” said co-author Debashish Bhattacharya, a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. “Our robust genome data provide the first major evidence that this is a false narrative and that adaptation to a challenging environment can be directly facilitated by stolen genes.”

So it is perfectly “natural” for genetic material in one organism to wind up in another organism!

That’s some real bio-technology, man. Nature is way ahead of us.

“Eat your vegetables.”

various-kind-vegetables

Take a look at all the supplements available to the American consumer.

Some of them are recognizable: calcium, flax oil, glucosamine, omega-3, selenium, turmeric, vitamin C, that sort of thing.

Others are bewildering: pycnogenol, rhodiola, indole-3-carbinol, quercetin, sytrinol, and the like. You need a background in both botany and biochemistry to make sense of it.

That site reports over 900 supplements!

Most of us don’t have the time or the wherewithal to understand a lot of what these things are and what they might do. Fortunately we have the internet, and you can read dozens of articles about what to eat and what supplements to take! And we have dozens of sites offering free medical advice! It’s a consumer’s dream!

Not.

Recently Johns Hopkins researchers did a big study which included studies of other studies and came to a simple conclusion: skip the supplements.

“The panacea or magic bullet that people keep searching for in dietary supplements isn’t there,” says senior author of the study Erin D. Michos, M.D., M.H.S., associate director of preventive cardiology at the Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease and associate professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “People should focus on getting their nutrients from a heart-healthy diet, because the data increasingly show that the majority of healthy adults don’t need to take supplements.”

Hmm. I don’t think the supplements industry—valued at about $30 billion—is going to like that.

Here’s more:

“Our analysis carries a simple message that although there may be some evidence that a few interventions have an impact on death and cardiovascular health, the vast majority of multivitamins, minerals and different types of diets had no measurable effect on survival or cardiovascular disease risk reduction,” says lead author Safi U. Khan, M.D., an assistant professor of Medicine at West Virginia University.

When life gets confusing, think about all the things Mom told you to do. Or not to do. Like don’t drink or smoke. Watch the sweets and the fried foods. Be nice. Play fair. Wash your hands. And finally, it seems, the one thing we never wanted to hear when we were kids but turns out to be the one right thing:

“Eat your vegetables.”

Fifty years ago

I was just a kid—9-1/2 years old—when Apollo 11 went to the moon. I remember watching the landing with my family (and a billion other people) that summer and also following closely all the Apollo missions before and after. I was quite the space travel buff and I’m sure that era had a lot to do with my lifelong love of science.

What I remember was that they weren’t just moon flights. It was a Space Race and we had to beat the Soviets. It was the Cold War and astronauts weren’t just rocket jockeys they were Cold Warriors. Here’s a 1968 TIME magazine cover that captures the feeling:

space race

Odd how the Russian cosmonaut seems to be ahead and the American astronaut is wearing a goofy gold-colored space suit. But we’ll allow for artistic license.

The USSR, it turned out, had no real lunar program and were not a threat to win the so-called race. But we didn’t know that at the time. The war in Vietnam was still in full swing with over half a million US troops still in country. Civil rights and other domestic political issues, not to mention opposition to the war, dominated the headlines. It is amazing that NASA continued to get the funding and support it needed to pull off the moon landings.

NASA probably had to frame the whole thing as a projection of American Power in order to keep it moving forward. People lose interest in technology for its own sake, it has to have some other benefit. We got sold on the “beat the Russians” angle and that kept the money flowing. If you remember the Olympics from those years, beating the Soviets head-to-head and in the medal count was the dominant narrative.

Regardless, it was a hell of a thing for men to walk on the moon. The outpouring of joy from across the globe when the mission was a success was an amazing thing. Sometimes a thing starts out one way and ends as another.

Neil died in 2012. Mike and Buzz are in their late 80s. What is remarkable to me is what great celebrities they all made. Despite their accomplishments they remained mostly the same dignified, serious, and humble men they had been before their moon flight made them heroes.

apollo11-crew

A billion people

There are nearly 40 million people in California. They are part of the 330 million that make up the US of A. In all the Americas—North, Central, and South—there are about one billion people.

That’s just to give you some perspective on one billion. It’s a big number and it’s hard to grasp. California’s 40 million represent only four percent of the one billion in the Western Hemisphere. (Greenland is not listed as part of the Americas, but it is in the West, however its population—55,000—is insignificant.)

So I’m alarmed when I see this:

“To be honest, my goal is to reach at least a billion people for personal and social transformation,”

The emphasis is mine. And it disturbs me when people start a sentence with “to be honest.” Does that mean they’ve been dishonest up to that point?

Here’s the rest:

said Chopra, “so we can collectively move in the direction of a more peaceful, just, sustainable, healthier and joyful world.”

Good lord. It’s that guy, Deepak. At least he’s honest:

Deepak Chopra believes in the power of podcasting.

“As you probably know, I’ve written over 85 books. But a lot of people don’t read books, they listen to podcasts. It’s much more convenient for them, they can put it on while they’re driving or on the train,” said Chopra, the renowned doctor and Chopra Foundation founder.

85 books? Really? That’s not enough? God Bless American Capitalism! Chopra has written, by his own admission, 85 books, and has over three million Twitter followers, two million Facebook followers, and one million Instagram followers. I don’t know what “personal and social transformation” is, but it sounds like the usual crap. I’m a child of the 70s and we covered that pretty well back then, I thought. Then we went back to living, which is sufficiently challenging and “transform-ative” all on its own.

You know who else is shooting for a billion? Apple, that’s who. Their installed iPhone user base has just topped 900 million. Since the smartphone can do all of the above: podcasts, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram; it would seem Deepak and Tim Cook ought to get together. That’s some real business synergy right there.

Apple makes technology. They market it in such a way that you feel privileged to join their iClub. And we hear all this endless blah-blah about how technology “transforms lives.” Deepak goes in the other direction. He starts with “transformation” and markets that. The technology is just the crack pipe, not the crack itself. Books were the first medium, “but a lot of people don’t read books.” And like all good salesmen, Chopra makes you feel special for joining his growing fan base.

An iPhone is not much different than any other smartphone. A MacBook is not much different than any other laptop. People who have those things aren’t any happier or more fulfilled than people who don’t. And one guru sounds a hell of a lot like every other guru.

Imagine if a billion people figure that out!

Pluribus

poker

No-Limit Texas Hold’em is the latest machine victim. A team at Carnegie-Mellon created an artificial intelligence called Pluribus that defeated top human players in games involving thousands of hands. We’ve already seen the downfall of the chess grandmasters, then the kings of Go, and now it’s the poker whizzes. I really liked what one of the players said afterwards:

Michael “Gags” Gagliano, who has earned nearly $2 million in career earnings, also competed against Pluribus.

“It was incredibly fascinating getting to play against the poker bot and seeing some of the strategies it chose” Gagliano said. “There were several plays that humans simply are not making at all, especially relating to its bet sizing. Bots/AI are an important part in the evolution of poker, and it was amazing to have first-hand experience in this large step toward the future.”

This is the way to look at these things. It is not surprising that AIs can brute force their way through board games. All the information and all the possibilities are available to see and analyze. Poker adds the problem of incomplete information (you don’t know what the other guy has) to the psychological aspects (is he bluffing?) which should be harder for a machine to deal with.

Apparently not.

Noam Brown, one of the researchers, had this to say:

“This is one of the interesting things about this AI, it’s not adapting to its opponent,” Brown said. “It has its strategy. It’s fixed, it doesn’t change what it’s playing based on how the humans are playing. This whole idea that there could be such a strategy in the game, I found really fascinating and that’s what really drew me to studying it more. It was kind of mystical, in a sense, there’s this strategy that we know exists, but we can’t find it.”

I’m not afraid of computers replacing humans because there are plenty of places where computers will do a better job. Autonomous driving will be a marvelous thing, for example. Air and space craft are mostly too complex to fly and they rely on machines to do the heavy work. Traffic control, whether it is trucks, ships, or satellites, will require AI.

There are a lot of complex processes in our lives. We’ll need help. AIs can find novel, original strategies that may be out of reach for humans. We know we can’t solve some problems, so we invented stuff that would solve them for us.

I can live with that.

Feed your head

It certainly beats getting your head shrunk. According to Neuroscience News:

A new study*, published in Psychiatry Research, has concluded that psychiatric diagnoses are scientifically worthless as tools to identify discrete mental health disorders.

It doesn’t surprise me. Medicine is as much art as science, and the hardest stuff has to be head medicine. We barely have definitions for things like “mind” or “consciousness” so treating what we assume are mental disorders is just tinkering with a black box.

Doctors are more like engineers, anyway. They do a lot of measuring and experimenting and they expect a lot of failure. They fiddle with complex systems in the hope of optimizing them.

That’s fine when it is knee pain or ulcers or gout or somesuch. But the head is a different place and the medical approach isn’t cutting it. Here’s from the study:

Lead researcher Dr. Kate Allsopp, University of Liverpool, said: “Although diagnostic labels create the illusion of an explanation they are scientifically meaningless and can create stigma and prejudice. I hope these findings will encourage mental health professionals to think beyond diagnoses and consider other explanations of mental distress, such as trauma and other adverse life experiences.”

People are different. Response to treatment, even with well-established drugs and other therapies, varies considerably.

A pragmatic approach to psychiatric assessment, allowing for recognition of individual experience, may therefore be a more effective way of understanding distress than maintaining commitment to a disingenuous categorical system.

There’s more, but it feels like piling on:

Professor John Read, University of East London, said: “Perhaps it is time we stopped pretending that medical-sounding labels contribute anything to our understanding of the complex causes of human distress or of what kind of help we need when distressed.”

People need head therapy. And they need to rely on psychiatry to provide some of it. Obviously people have access to other kinds of help—counselors and psychologists and whatnot—but psychiatrists have an M.D. attached to their names and that has some pull.

We’ve a lot to learn about the mind. I don’t mean to pick on the shrinks. This study is a critique of a standard diagnostic manual that doctors use. A big complex system like that can often seem real and can replace thinking with simple heuristics, making tough decisions easier. That’s all fine and good, but sometimes the uncertainty is more important.

I suspect advances in neuro-imaging will start to pay off and we’ll get clearer ideas about some mental states. Research in artificial intelligence will teach us a lot about behavior, I think, even if we don’t want to hear it! In the mean time, enjoy the mystery, and feed your head.

 

*Heterogeneity in psychiatric diagnostic classification; Allsopp, Read, et. al.

Plastics are Forever

Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as “diamonds” does it? Besides, that’s the beef with plastics—they last forever! Diamonds do too, but that’s the appeal. With plastics we really want them to go away when we are done with them. Pesky buggers like to stick around, and even when they fall apart into little plastic bits they still last forever.

Recycling is the Holy Grail of plastics. There are too many kinds right now and they are too hard to sort and separate. When you melt down a mix of plastics into a goo you get a new plastic, not what you started with, and that’s not the intent of recycling.

plastics_waste_management_1960-2015_final

You can see we have a growing problem. Some have suggested we replace petroleum-based plastics with bio-plastics that will degrade after use. So far the materials tested are heavier, costlier, and less durable than what we have. The reason we use so many damn plastics is that they work! They are light, cheap, and tough, and have applications in so many areas in our lives that we would literally be lost without them.

The solution to any waste problem is to plan ahead. Manufacturing is traditionally a one-and-done affair. You get some raw materials, you stamp out your widgets, you sell them and send them away. If you make money you do it all over again.

In today’s world we ought to think about the end use and recovery of the materials before we make anything. That way we have a plan in place for the waste stream. In fact it is not a waste stream at all but a resource. The glass, aluminum, and steel industries all count on a significant portion of recycled scrap in their production processes.

The geniuses at Lawrence Berkeley Lab are looking to do the same with plastics. The Molecular Foundry has been experimenting with this stuff called poly-diketoneamine (PDK) that may do the trick. Plastics weren’t built to be recycled. Plastics made from this stuff are, however.

All plastics are polymers, made up of smaller, repeating units called monomers. The base materials are the same (hydrocarbons) for all plastics but it’s the additives that determine the different properties. These additives make the various types of plastics incompatible with each other when it comes to recycling. Once added these chemicals can’t be un-added and those polymers can’t be broken back down into their constituent monomers.

It is different with PDK plastics. The bonds are reversible and the end-use plastics can be broken down and the original monomers recovered and formed into new plastics again. The linear path of creation to use to disposal now becomes a circular one of creation to use to re-use. Now that’s a “forever” plastic!

I remember once talking to a nuclear engineer about the nuclear waste problem. He thought it was a mistake to bury the wastes too deep. He didn’t want the stuff to be too hard to get to. He said “we might need it later.” It was not something I’d heard before. He talked about all the energy and human ingenuity that went into the extraction and processing of these materials and what a shame it was that we would throw them away when done with them. The fact that they were still radioactive, to him, was a good thing. That meant they still had value.

I sure liked his perspective. We need more thinking like that.