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(Macadamia) Nuts for Genetic Diversity

(Macadamia) Nuts for Genetic Diversity

After consulting my doctor, I’ve recently started upping the “good” fats to my diet. (I love half an avocado on toasted sourdough!) Nuts are great source of monounsaturated fats, so I’ve been macadamia nutsindulging in a few nuggets of my favourite — macadamia nuts. Little did I know, that what I thought was simply a healthy snack, was actually a wonder of modern agriculture!
 
Hawai’i is the centre of macadamia nut production, growing a whopping 70% of all macadamias eaten on the planet. Back in May, researchers reverse-engineered the genome of a sample of Hawaiian trees and compared them with trees still grown in the macadamia’s natural habitat of Queensland, Australia. The Hawaiian trees had a very narrow set of genetic markers, which indicated that the majority of the world’s macadamia nuts are descended from a single tree or stand of trees in Queensland.
 
“‘A small collection of seeds were taken to Hawai’i at the end of the 19th century and historical records suggest that there was maybe six trees grown from that sample of nuts that were taken by Robert Jordan and planted in his brothers’ backyard in the suburbs of Honolulu in 1896,’ [horticulturist and study author Craig] Hardner told ABC News.”

From this small sample grew the entire Hawaiian macadamia population! But such focus comes with a price: Like many other food crops, macadamia nuts are propagated by grafting. The limited genetic diversity of the Hawaiian macadamias is a result of this process — effectively, the trees are all clones of the original Queensland “parent.” This also means that, like other monoculture crops, the majority of macadamia trees could be wiped out by a badly-timed blight or disease.
Thankfully, despite a small natural range, the Queensland macadamia trees exhibit a greater range of genetic diversity and should stand fast in the face of a blight if we humans don’t catch it in time. I take this as an object lesson in the limits of human interference in nature. And in responsible snacking!

Artificial Tongue Tastes for True Whisky

whisky

A team of researchers from — where else? — the University of Glasgow has invented an “artificial tongue,” that can differentiate between different kinds of whisky, and could potentially be used to put a halt to the dangerous counterfeit alcohol trade.
 
Looking nothing like an actual tongue — thank god — the artificial tongue is made up of two different kinds of metal nano-sensors, that mimic human tastebuds.
 
“Using subatomic slices of gold and aluminum to test the tipples, the research team created tastebuds 500 times smaller than a human’s, which were then able to successfully identify differences between drinks with greater than 99% accuracy. The tongue even had enough taste to tell the difference between a Glenfiddich 12-year-old whisky and a bottle of the 18-year-old variety.

[Lead study author Alasdair] Clark added that while whisky was the primary tasting subject for the experiment, the technology could also be used for food safety screenings and quality controls.”

We at DFC are big fans of what we call “Scotch O’Clock,” that pre-dinner hour on Fridays where we indulge in a favourite peaty potent potable and plain salty potato chips. (Don’t knock it, the combo works!) So we’re not going to replace our tongues with artificial ones anytime soon. But this invention could do wonders for whisky (and whiskey), as well as the health of consumers everywhere. I’ll drink to that!

With Tattoo Sensors, Health is Skin-Deep

tattoo example

Researchers from the Technical University of Munich have united new technology with one of the oldest art forms, all to improve human wellbeing. They have developed an experimental dermal implant pigment that turns colour when it detects changes in metabolic substances. The pigment can be incorporated traditional tattoo ink — which means a permanent monitor of a long-term condition could someday be worn comfortably (and stylishly!) by a patient, and deliver readings in real-time.
 
The researchers identified and adapted three chemical sensors that change colour in response to body changes into tattoo inks that they injected into pigskin. The first sensor was a simple pH indicator that changed from yellow to blue as the test “body”’s pH rose. The second was a blood glucose detector that went from yellow to dark green. The third involved albumin (a protein in the blood which, when low, might point out kidney trouble), which also went from yellow to green as levels fell.
 
From MedicalXPress, via BoingBoing:
 
“The authors claim that such sensor tattoos could allow permanent monitoring of patients using a simple, low-cost technique. With the development of suitable colorimetric sensors, the technique could also extend to recording electrolyte and pathogen concentrations or the level of dehydration of a patient. Further studies will explore whether tattoo artwork can be applied in a diagnostic setting.”
 
Wouldn’t it be amazing to someday have a custom tat that can subtly tell you to adjust your insulin, or slug back some electrolytes? Technology is swiftly taking advice to “listen to your body” to a whole new level. Plus, it represents a return of sorts of the art of tattooing to one of its original purposes: healing! 

Trip Again, Trip Better: Building a Smarter Prosthetic Leg

We behind DFC are a military family, and will forever be thankful to service members everywhere for the sacrifices they make for our country. So, when tech news comes down the pipes with a particular application for military members and veterans, we twig to it immediately!
 
One such development is Vanderbilt University’s recent research into improving the stumble response in computerized prosthetic legs. (Even the most advanced prosthetic has difficulty recovering after a trip; as a result, people with above-the-knee amputations experience significantly more falls than their peers with two biological legs.)
 
First, the team is looking at how able-bodied folks compensate for unexpected trip hazards in their way. They do this by setting volunteers on a treadmill, blocking their vision, and then literally tripping them — 190 times. From Research News @Vanderbilt:
 
“Special goggles kept [volunteer Andrés Martínez] from looking down. Arrows on an eye-level screen kept him from walking off the sides. A harness attached to a ceiling beam kept him safe. Sure enough, when a computer program released the steel block, it glided onto the treadmill, and the Vanderbilt University PhD student struggled to stay on his feet. […]

‘Not only did our treadmill device have to trip them, it had to trip them at specific points in their gait,’ said Shane King, a PhD student and lead author on the paper. ‘People stumble differently depending on when their foot hits a barrier. The device also had to overcome their fear of falling, so they couldn’t see or feel when the block was coming.’
 
In addition to protecting test subjects, the harness included a scale. If a subject put 50 percent or more of their weight on it during a stumble, that counted as a fall.”
 
Take a look at the treacherous treadmill in action f.
 
It’s fascinating to see such a natural human action (that we often want to pretend never happened!) broken down and studied. A lot goes on in our brains and bodies when we trip on something — believe me, after I mangled my ankle and knee in seconds in a dog walking accident a few years ago, I know! It’s striking how much work needs to go into making a computer do what we already do so well, but the payoff for bionic users will be immense. I look forward to how this concept develops.

Unlikely Roommates: Nuns and Millennials find Common Ground

nuns as roommates for millenials

At first glance, there seem to be no two populations in today’s world more divergent than women religious and Millennials. But a new organization, dubbed “Nuns and Nones” (as in “none being Catholic”) is finding out that both groups can learn from each other, in one of the most time-tested ways — by living together in one community as roommates.
 
A six-month-long pilot project saw a group of young activists become roommates to a convent of Sisters of Mercy in the San Francisco Bay area. The “nones” felt called to public service, morality, and social justice, but were unsure of how to fully incorporate such devotion into their lifestyles. So they looked to the wisdom of the “radical, badass women” who are masters of the art.

“‘So many of the millennials would say, “I’m looking for rituals. I’m looking for rituals to work in my lesbian community or social justice or I need rituals for this other thing,’” Sister Carle said. One young woman wanted ritual so much that she started going to Mass every morning.”
 
And in turn, the sisters derived joy and growth from the new relationships the program fostered:
 
“Sister Janet Rozzano, 81, chose not to be involved with the young visitors at first, but they started using her kitchen.

‘I kind of got thrown into it,’ she said. ‘We just had so much in common to talk about.’

Sister Rozzano spends most of her time coaching her fellow sisters on their own journeys. Much of this now involves the challenges of living in an ageing body.
 
‘One of the challenges of ageing is not just to focus down on your aches and pains,’ she said. ‘And I feel like this called me back again to the bigger vision. And on a simple level, I overcame my fear of talking to younger people.’”

The experience of the Nuns and Nones is an object lesson, not just for participants (and there are non-cohabiting groups all over the USA), but for anyone in one group that needs to communicate with another. In short: everybody. I’m going to keep this fascinating community in mind as I navigate my business and personal relationships. Like many of us, I could certainly use a little generosity of spirit, contemplation, and “badassery” in my life.

The Extra Finger Advantage

finger

In the Simpsons universe, everyone famously has only four fingers on each hand (the configuration is easier to animate). The sole exception is occasional guest star, God, who, as a deity, naturally has five fingers per hand. So, what does it mean when someone has six?
 
On The Simpsons, nothing: there is no character who boasts 12 total fingers. But in the real world, it means you could have some pretty special wiring in your brain. Researchers are looking at folks with polydactyly, whose extra fingers are fully-formed and usable, in an effort to upgrade the dexterity of those of us stuck with only ten digits.
 
The new study is groundbreaking, in that it looks at polydactyly as an advantage. (The condition is traditionally considered a birth defect, and extra digits, manipulatable or no, are frequently removed in infancy.) The University of Freiburg, Imperial College London, and the Université de Lausanne and L’Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne have joined forces to study how the human brain incorporates the experience of extra fingers.
 
Though the sample size is currently two (a 52-year-old woman and her 17-year-old son), it seems a good start: the participants tied shoelaces, played video games, and typed on a computer keyboard, then had their fMRI’s compared to non-polydactyl subjects or those with an extra finger.
 
“The researchers found that, like non-polydactyl fingers, the extra digits had their own dedicated tendons, muscles, and nerves, as well as extra corresponding brain regions in the motor cortex.
Polydactyl participants also performed better at many tasks than their non-polydactyl counterparts. For instance, they were able to perform some tasks, like tying shoelaces, with only one hand, where two are usually needed. […]

[Senior paper author] Professor [Etienne] Burdet said: ‘The polydactyl individual’s brains were well adapted to controlling extra workload, and even had dedicated areas for the extra fingers. It’s amazing that the brain has the capacity to do this seemingly without borrowing resources from elsewhere.’”
 
Uses for this knowledge could involve things like extra robot arms for a non-polydactyl surgeon, so they could perform procedures without assistance. But this remains a bit pie-in-the-sky: the team acknowledges that artificial limbs won’t have the same familiarity to the user that a flesh-and-blood appendage or finger does. Plus, it’s likely the brain maps of people born with an extra finger expanded to cover said fingers precisely because they were born with them: the brain of, say, a 45-year-old surgeon might lack the plasticity to control an artificial limb with enough dexterity for the job.
 
Nevertheless, this remains a fascinating concept to think about. If I had a future-tech extra robot limb, I’d use it to type fast enough to catch up with my brain. (Or maybe take both dogs for a walk, with a third hand carrying a travel mug of coffee!) Dear reader: what would you use your additional limb for?

New Drone Sensors Are The Cat’s Whiskers — Literally

cat with whiskers

For all our vaunted advantages — thumbs! giant brains! — the human toolbox sometimes pales in comparison to all of the species-specific hardware out there. For example, whiskers are an extraordinary set of close-range sensing organs that are found not only on the usual suspects of cats and dogs, but on rodents, seals, and even some birds. Whiskers allow their bearers to feel objects around them and orient themselves spatially (as in a tunnel), as well as to detect wind speed and direction.
 
What humans are really good at, though, is borrowing cool concepts from the natural world for use in robotics. And that is exactly what is happening with whiskers. A team out of the University of Queensland is investigating how to equip small drones with cute-but-functional vibrissae, to provide a low-cost physical sensor for inexpensive robots.
 
The drone whiskers are made by heating dots of ABS plastic and drawing them out into fine threads. Mounted on force pads, and then on the drone, the whiskers boast a whole range of sensing capabilities to be tested.
 
“We are interested in translating the proven sensor utility of whiskers on ground platforms to hovering robots and drones— whiskers that can sense low-force contact with the environment such that the robot can maneuver to avoid more dangerous, high-force interactions. We are motivated by the task of navigating through dark, dusty, smoky, cramped spaces, or gusty, turbulent environments with micro-scale aircraft that cannot mount heavier sensors such as lidars.”
 
Though they are not as accurate in long-distance sensing as lidar or cameras, plastic whiskers are cheap. Their use in small, light drones that may be sent into situations they’re not going to come out of in one piece is a perfect match of form and function. I for one welcome our new adorable robot overlords — as do Jill and Samson, the original whisker-havers!

Octopus and Co.: The New Lab Rats?

one octopus short of octopuses

Animal testing is an unfortunate reality of how we make biomedical research happen. While organizations have struggled to drive down cosmetic testing and other non-critical uses of animal lives, animal testing in medicine and the sciences is a necessary evil. (Though it can be debated how much of the foot-dragging is because there really are no viable alternatives)
 
But I wonder if this might change, now that researchers are looking to replace the standard “lab rat” with one of the most fascinating classes of animals, Cephalopoda — that is the octopus, cuttlefish, and squid. Scientists are interested in the unique makeup of these amazing creatures and want to learn more about how they react to their environments. Plus, they are taking their new ethical ground seriously: Cephalopods, some of which are “the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien” are governed by similar experiment rules that protect fruit flies, worms, and other invertebrates. Will that be enough to protect these mysteriously intelligent creatures as we strive to understand them?
 
The Marine Biological Laboratory is making the attempt. NPR reports:
 
“‘I ended up sequencing the [California two-spot] octopus genome because I’m interested in how you make a weird animal,’ says Carrie Albertin, who now works at MBL. ‘Most of their genes have some similarity to genes that we have and other animals have. Their close relatives are clams and snails. But they seem just so otherworldly.’ […]

Knowing all the genes is just a start for researchers interested in these animals. The obvious next step is trying to tinker with those genes, to see what happens if they’re disrupted. […]

Figuring out how to do this has been labor-intensive. Research assistant Namrata Ahuja sits at a microscope, where she injects gene-editing material into tiny squid embryos over and over and over again.

‘You get embryos almost every day, and their clutch that they lay can vary anywhere from 50 to 200 eggs in one clutch,’ she explains. ‘So if you get that many in one day, for five days a week, that adds up.’”
 
Research into these animals can yield fascinating insight into their behaviour. In addition, the more we learn about the octopus, the more we can describe the boundaries of human nature — while the evolutionary branches of cephalopods and humans on the tree of life diverged long ago, the study of octopuses, in particular, is illuminating because “evolution built minds twice over.”. The MBL team is spearheading anaesthesia research to keep these critters comfortable and unexploited. If those qualifications are met, who knows what wonders Cephalapoda can help us unlock?

Lucy in the Synthesizer with Diamonds

We at DFC have cleaned a lot of mystery residues off of hardware in our time. Cherry cola in a keyboard, lunch grease in a trackball, corrosion of all kinds — you name it, we’ve pried it off some computer part.
 
Thankfully, we’ve never come across a cleanup job like Eliot Curtis did recently. A broadcast operations manager at the San Francisco CBS station, as well as a hacker in his private life, Curtis volunteered to restore a Buchla Model 100 synthesizer for California State University East Bay Campus. A model of early synthesizer that helped usher in the 1960s mania for electronically generated music, this particular instrument had been languishing in storage since the fad passed.
 
But Buchla Model 100s were also the nexus of a particularly groovy rumour: Designer Don Buchla had connections that cooked up some fabulously powerful LSD, and some Buchla synths, owned by Ken Kesey, were reputed to have had components coated in acid by his Merry Pranksters.
 
Curtis began cleaning this particular real-life synthesizer and came right up against this rumour — physically.
 
“As Curtis was disassembling a module that appears to have been added to the Buchla Model 100 after it was delivered to the school, he noticed a crystal-like residue stuck under one of the instrument’s knobs. In an attempt to dislodge it, he blasted it with cleaning solvent and tried to simply rub it off with his finger. Forty-five minutes later, he started to experience a tingling sensation, the beginnings of an acid trip, that would last nine hours. Three separate chemical tests later identified the crystallized substance as lysergic acid diethylamide — or LSD — which can be absorbed through the skin, and can survive for decades.”
 
As a former chemist, I find this story fascinating and went on a deep dive into the varying opinions on how long LSD can last in the open air. Most commenters on Curtis’s accidental trip claim it’s a tall story: LSD is pretty unstable in its pure form, and in its most common format — a liquid, usually soaked into the absorbent paper. Exposure to heat, light, and oxygen over a large surface area can cause it to break down within months.
 
However, pure acid was frequently stabilized with additives before sale. Additionally, the relatively large mass of crystallized acid found under the Buchla knob could retain potency deep in its centre, especially in the cool, dark, and undisturbed conditions in which the synth was stored
 
From inspiring musicians and Silicon Valley innovators to alleviating end-of-life anxiety, LSD has many uses. Add to this list an excuse to bunk off work for nine hours! Kidding aside, getting dosed without preparation can be scary. Whatever Curtis’s experience was, I’m glad he made it out intact, to service many future synths — with gloves on, next time.

The (Honey) Bees Are Alright

bees

If you’re anything like me — an apian layperson — when you hear the word “bee,” your mind immediately fills with terrible visions of colony collapse disorder, leading to no more honey, and then leading to the end of all life on earth
 
But, if you’re anything like me — an environmental catastrophizer — you’ll also have made a bit of a leap in logic in the above paragraph. Honey bees, with their industrious culture and their cute looks, are the poster children for the bee-pocalypse that threatens our world. But, they are only one of the nearly 20,000 species of bee that plies the skies worldwide, and are relatively new to Ontario (home to 400 bee species!). Our plants and crops are pollinated by many, many creatures of varying precarity, but the honey bees are doing remarkably okay — and that’s a problem for everyone else. Bloomberg has a fascinating pocket-cast on this phenomenon and cites biology professor David Goulson’s frustration.
 
“Honeybees are essentially livestock, Goulson says. They’re kept in manmade structures where they’re given food and medicine, and then they’re deployed by the millions to perform a specific agriculture function. All that special treatment makes them a poor symbol for the environmental problems faced by the many other species of bee, he says.

‘I get really frustrated when people talk about “the bee,”’ Goulson says. ‘They’re usually talking about honeybees, or maybe they’re just talking about bees and they don’t realize there’s more than one species.’”
 
All bees do benefit from the attention drawn by the charismatic honey bee, it’s true. But it’s imperative that differences in species be respected when it comes to human interventions. I’m thinking of the phenomenon of bee hotels: little houses made of untreated wood, with holes of varying size drilled in to provide shelter for colony-less mother bees and their eggs.
 
Piloted in Amsterdam in 2000, the hotels, and corresponding intensive plantings of local flora, are responsible for increasing the local bee population by a whopping 45%. Now trending worldwide, bee hotels in private gardens and in parks must be designed with local species in mind: to use the Dutch example, tube nesting bees number only three species, and will refuse to nest in tubes that are not 2mm to 10mm in diameter. Larger holes permit colonization by parasitic wasps and flies, and provide a foothold for mould — defeating the purpose of an insect refuge entirely!
 
I’m tempted to do my research and build a little bee hotel chez DFC. Even if the honey bees in our community don’t need it, I’d love to help out some of the other species that take care of pollinating our food and flowers. I deeply appreciate their efforts — and, if I get the design right, they will hopefully appreciate my efforts in return.