- Website: http://cargocollective.com/pigeonandtonic
- Next Nature Researcher
Some desert animals, like the kangaroo rat, get through their lives without needing to drink even a drop of water. Now, a Japanese design company aims to make humans just as efficient. Faced with a fictional, future scenario of global apocalypse, Takram was tasked with the challenge of creating a water bottle for the end-times. The designers quickly realized that the best approach was not a bottle at all, but a set of artificial organs that retain and recycle the water already present in the body. Their Hydrolemic System is the cyborg’s answer to surviving global warming, nuclear explosions and Death Valley.
Humans are leaky. We sweat, pee, and breathe out all our hard-earned water. The Hydrolemic System uses several devices to minimize this loss. Two nasal inserts harvest exhaled moisture. A generator implanted in the jugular, in combination with a neck collar, transforms body heat into electricity and reduces the need for sweating. Even better are the urine concentrator and the rectal fecal dehydrator, both intended to make every bathroom trip a dry-as-dust affair. The system works in concert with “rubedo candies”, small pills that contain a day’s nutrients and 32 mL of water – less than a thimble-full.
Via Fast Co.Exist
Neural synapses in the human brain are extraordinarily complex structures. Responsible for relaying information between neurons, chemical synapses govern the release of over 100 different kinds of neurotransmitters, while electrical synapses deliver information via electricity for rapid-fire reflexes.
Now, researchers in Japan have invented a simplified synapse in the form of a ”solid-state electrochemical nanodevice” that functions as a switch. The gap between these two synthetic synapses is bridged by a tiny copper wire, which changes in conductivity over time. Though at first it may seem a bit esoteric, this new device actually mimics what goes on in the construction of sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory. The scientists behind this synapse are hopeful that it will lead to more life-like artificial minds, as well as treatments for the human brain.
It’s interesting that this nanodevice may in some ways have improved upon a biological synapse. Evolution tends to lead to local maxima – it reaches the best design given existing structures, but it can’t invent entirely new solutions out of nothing. The “blind spot” is a classic example: Because the optic nerve connects through the retina, there is a blank region in our field of vision where the nerve cells have crowded out the sensory cells. The brain has evolved very clever ways to deal with this deficit, but evolution hasn’t actually been able to completely solve the problem.* Maybe science may soon find more “intelligent designs” that cut some of the evolutionary clutter. As always, we welcome our hyper-efficient cyborg overlords.
*Except in squid and octopi.
Growing up, I had a cockatiel that could mimic the bleeping cacophony of a dial-up connection with dead accuracy. I never stopped to think that my bird (still alive) preserves a valuable trace of our pre-broadband heritage. Just like Boa Sr, Thud the cockatiel could be the last “speaker” of an otherwise forgotten set of sounds.
Stepping into the void of noise is Brendan Chilcutt’s Museum of Endangered Sounds. This online repository preserves defunct sounds as diverse as a Nokia ring tone, a fax machine and the preloaded game that came with Encarta encyclopedia. Rich in memory and resonance to members of a certain generation, these noises are a mere curiosity to younger people. “Curiosity” might even be a strong term. Without any cultural connections, the majority of these sounds have no intrinsic interest.
The museum skews towards technologies created within the last 20 years. It would be great if the museum were expanded to more distant sounds. Did Dr. Taylor’s Manipulator vibrate with a particularly pleasing tone? Did the Antikythera Mechanism rattle in a familiar way to its users? And we’re left to wonder if the pasilalinic-sympathetic compass made any noise at all.
Via Discover Magazine.
This stunning graphic, courtesy of Nature & More, shows the astonishing drop in food crop diversity from 1903 to 1983. Lettuces available from commercial seed houses now represent just 7% of their former glory, while cabbage hovers at just 5%. All a reminder that the modern supermarket’s cornucopia of boxes and bags is a false diversity of choice.
The first “modern” streetlight was lit in London’s Pall Mall in 1807. That night may also have marked the first time a moth found itself trapped in an irresistible spiral around public lighting. Ever since then, streetlights have become a fixture of life in cities and suburbs, and a deathtrap for flying insects. Researchers at the University of Exeter have recently discovered that the abundance of insect life around these lights is not just a passing assemblage, but a permanent fixture. The diversity of invertebrate ground predators and scavengers, like beetles and harvestmen, remained elevated around streetlights even during the day. These insects had figured out the benefits of living in an island of artificially high prey concentrations.
These findings indicate that streetlights affect local ecologies for a longer duration, and at a higher level in the food web, than previously thought. Given the decline of pollinators and other invertebrates in the UK and around the world, it may be important to re-examine the impact of seemingly harmless nighttime lighting.
Brazilian ad agency AGE Isobar spent two years experimenting in order to grow fruits into the shape of Camp’s juice boxes. Immature limes, guavas and passionfruit were packed inside of plastic molds. As they grew, they took on the form of a box and the logo of the brand.
The stunt ostensibly goes to show that Camp’s fruit juice is all-natural. Though it’s only a marketing gimmick, we can still hope for the days that food produces its own packaging – or be content knowing that bananas already do.
Story and images via Design Taxi.
While the Pacific garbage patch is often characterized as a dense, Texas-sized island of plastic, in reality it’s an area of 2,736 square km scattered with tiny, floating bits of plastic. Popular conception holds that the worst effect of this junk is that it strangles animals, or accumulates in their stomachs, leading to slow, painful deaths either way.
In reality, it’s much harder to suss out plastic’s impact on oceanic organisms. Fish and birds do eat plastic, and in large quantities. Bottle shards and cigarette lighters were found in the bellies of dead albatross chicks. However, it may be that for most animals, nurdles more or less harmlessly pass through their digestive systems. Scientists just don’t know. On the flip side of the plastic coin are ocean-faring creatures that are clearly thriving thanks to this novel material.
Most corn has been selectively bred over the centuries to be a single color: yellow, white or blue. Glass gem corn, a varietal grown by Greg Schoen, harkens back to the days when each kernel of corn was a different color. This variation is due to the fact that, rather than being identical, all the kernels are genetically distinct siblings.
The glass gem echoes the jewel caterpillar, another organism than by dint of its otherworldly beauty recently went from natural phenomena to internet phenomena. Even though we live in a time where computer graphics make every chimeric beast and landscape visible, we’re still just as – or even more –interested in natural freaks as our ancestors who once flocked to fairs and sideshows.
Is your friend impatiently tapping on her phone, or is she just charging the battery? Researchers at the Berkeley Lab have produced the first virus-powered generator that runs off taps. The device takes advantage of a special characteristic of certain viruses, piezoelectricity, that converts movement into electrical energy. By tapping on a small electrode coated in harmless viruses, the scientists were able to produce enough energy to power a liquid-crystal display. The viruses, which self-assemble into a thin, organized film, may also pave the way for simplified electronics manufacturing.
This technology could potentially generate electricity from any object that’s subject to motion or vibration: Doors in apartment buildings, busy sidewalks and roads, even the soles of shoes. There’s stranger, next natural applications to consider as well. What about tiny surveillance devices that run on pigeons’ flapping wings? Or streetlights powered by leaves as they shake in the wind? Whatever the outcome, this piezoelectric generator represents a step away from mechanistic thought, and towards a more ecological approach to design.
Via Berkeley Lab.
Italian architect Carlo Morsiani would like to take Amsterdam’s canals from dark, dank and filled with old bikes, to brilliant, blue, and presumably still filled with old bikes. Morsiani recently proposed adding bioluminescent members of Photobacterium to the city’s waterways. With the canals stocked with motion-sensitive bacteria, any passing boats or accidental swimmers would leave a hazy blue trail in their wake.
The idea is not entirely untenable – bioluminescent organisms congregate in such density in Vieques, Puerto Rico, that the bay has become a tourist attraction. Since these tropical organisms produce only weak light, Morsiani has a lot of genetic modification to work out before these bacteria can adjust to life in Europe. Add glowing canals to buildings coated with Photobacterium and transgenic streetlight trees, and we might never have to change a lightbulb again.
Story via The Pop-Up City.
Certain types of bacteria can navigate using magnetic nanoparticles as tiny compasses. Researchers at the University of Leeds have extracted the protein that controls this process and applied it to computing. Typical hard drives use use “granular computing”, while this new method relies on bit-pattern media, where each miniscule magnetic square on a surface can store one bit.
The team is close to recreating the data density of modern hard drives, and hope eventually to be able to store one terabyte of date per square inch – more advanced than any existing hard drive. According to Sarah Stanilan, who lead the research, “We’re using and abusing nature because it’s had billions of years to do all of its experiments through evolution, so there is almost no point in us starting from scratch.”
Time to add another superpower to insect silk, which already includes bulletproof skin and implantable microelectronics. Recent research indicates that silk may be an ideal candidate for creating strong, flexible scaffolding for re-growing bones. Scientists used a chemical process to break silk strands down into nano-scale fibers that were used to reinforce a silk protein scaffold. By mimicking the natural roughness and stiffness of bone, this biodegradable structure helps to encourage vigorous bone growth. While certain biomaterials are at the center of research into bone regeneration, few of these existing materials can match silk’s toughness, especially in load-bearing grafts.
The United States Food and Drug Administration recently approved Elelyso, the first drug to be grown in genetically modified plant cells. Produced in carrot cells, this drug helps to treat the symptoms of Gaucher disease, a genetic disorder that causes bruising, anemia and low blood platelets.
Israeli scientists were able to insert a gene that codes for a human enzyme into carrot cells, causing the cells to produce the same protein that Gaucher patients lack. This new method should help prevent drug shortages that have affected Gaucher sufferers in the past, as well as being cheaper and less prone to infection than animal cells. Soon mothers may be telling their children to eat carrots, not just for better eyesight, but for better health across the board.
At Next Nature, we often argue that “our image of nature as static, balanced and harmonious is naive and up for reconsideration.” Paleontologist Peter J. Ward happens to agree. In a challenge to the Gaia hypothesis, which holds that all life functions as nurturing, super-organismal “mother”, Ward argues that life on earth has a death wish that would do Freud proud.
Ward claims that, contrary to popular images of cataclysmic asteroids and volcanoes, most mass extinctions on earth were set in motion by microbes. 2.4 billion years ago, microscopic cyanobacteria emerged newly equipped with photosynthesis and triggered the Great Oxygenation Event. While great for aerobic organisms, it was fatal news for anaerobic life, which had up until then had free reign over the planet. The sudden release of oxygen is also likely what set off the Huronian Glaciation, a deadly “snowball earth” that kept the planet locked in ice for 300 million years.
Peak oil, the point when petroleum extraction is at its maximum, may have already occurred sometime in the last few years. Not only affecting whether we drive a Humvee or not, engineer Debbia Chachra reminds us that peak oil also means peak plastic.
Not limited to water bottles and cheap toys, plastic is vital to medicine, industry, agriculture, and transportation. From the soles of your shoes to the carpeting in your house, it’s harder to find an object that doesn’t incorporate petrochemicals than one that does. “Plastic,” Chachra writes, “is so ubiquitous that it’s almost invisible.”
Plastic’s durability means that it winds up everywhere, welcome or not: In the bellies of albatross, in giant trash vortexes in the pacific, on beaches and in our blood. Although certain microbes may eventually evolve to eat plastic, the truth is that most of our plastic waste is going to stick around for thousands of years.
This resistance to degradation, Chachra argues, is a hidden asset. Millions of tons of petroplastic are buried in landfills, waiting for the day when the cost of excavating them becomes less than the cost of squeezing the last drops oil from the ground. Although we may develop workable alternatives, petroplastic’s killer combo of persistence, moldability, and sterilizability will make it valuable for centuries to come.
Chachra envisions a future where “cool, slick petroplastics will become a repository of warm nostalgia. I like to imagine the Brooklyn-hipsters-of-the-future, on their rooftops, using vodka and bitter almond oil to make artisanal polyethylene.”
Via Warren Ellis.
Humans and other hominids have a reputation for bringing about mass extinctions. Homo erectus has been blamed for the disappearance of many African carnivores, our ancestors likely caused the Pleistocene extinctions, and modern humans are currently embroiled in the midst of the sixth great extinction event.
New evidence indicates that hominids have been causing significant extinctions far earlier than ever thought. Australopithecus afarensis, of Lucy fame, has been implicated in the disappearance of 23 species of carnivores that prowled Africa around 2 million years ago. Omnivores and small to mid-sized carnivores all bowed out at the same time tool-using A. afarensis showed up, leaving only hyper-specialized carnivores such as lions and hyenas.
Lars Werdelin, of the Swedish Museum of Natural History, theorizes that Australopithecines were such efficient scavengers that they knocked out any species that relied on part-time carcass theft. Groups of A. afarensis with stone tools likely were enough to scare away civets or large, predatory otters that competed for meat. This finding is all the more the remarkable becuase Australopithecines’ brains and bodies were only slighter larger than those of modern chimpanzees. Human-style social living and tool use, it seems, have made us top competitors from the beginning.
It’s nothing new that humanity is getting chubbier by the day. What’s surprising is that we’re bringing our animals along for the ride. A meta-analysis of animal weight has revealed that, over the last several decades, creatures as diverse as feral rats and laboratory primates have been getting fatter.
For some of the species in the study, these trends have obvious causes. Dogs and cats are moving less and watching more tv, just like their owners. ‘Synanthropes’, animals like pigeons and rats that live in association with human communities, are thriving on dumpsters filled with our calorie-dense discards. Without natural predators keep them on their toes, it makes sense that city rats living on fatty, sugary foods will turn into the rodent equivalents of Howard Taft.
It’s harder to explain weight gain in lab animals. Creatures used in research settings like chimpanzees, macaques and vervets all live in controlled environments where they’re insulted from the charms of Krispy Kreme and HBO. These zaftig animals typify the complex state of obesity science. One day obesity is reducible to maxims – “eat less, exercise more” – while the next it balloons outwards to encompass hidden factors like viruses, thrifty genes, drifty genes, and chemical obesogens.
DogTV, a new TV channel available in the US, offers 24/7 programming for the modern dog. There’s busy streets, computer-animated moths and frolicking, cross-breed hounds. The channel promises to relax anxious dogs and to entertain bored ones.
DogTV may be saying more about our relationship with our dogs than it does about the dogs themselves. We’ve transfered civilization’s discontents onto our pets. Dogs have gotten depressed and fat along with their owners. They spend much of their lives indoors and inactive. And now, just like us, they can chill in front of the tube as a surrogate for ‘real life’.
For more mutt-friendly videos, check out DogTV’s YouTube channel.