A different singularity

Ferrante and I have a lot of shared interests.  Video games, music, music games, and scifi/fantasy to name a few.  But we’re individuals and of course we have our differences.  He’s got comics; I’ve got sports.  He sports a full beard, while my facial hair is more akin to that of a middle schooler.  And he’s got computers, while I’ve got science.  I’m not saying I’m not computer literate.  I am.  But I can’t (also won’t) make my own computer.  Full control over the GHZ or whatnot is outside the realm of things I need from the machine I’m currently typing on.  Hell, the Dell laptop I’m using has a broken graphics card fan that makes a high pitched whining noise sometimes.  Most computer nerds would probably have a seizure over that.  Anyway, I fill the void left by lack of computer skills with science.

Fortunately, science and computer technology are not too terribly far apart (hence the name computer science?).  And they’re getting closer all the time.  So sometimes we have a meshing of our individual fields, like when scientists start using bacteria for problem solving. The method is pretty cool.  They inserted a plasmid carrying mixed up pieces of an antibiotic resistance gene into E. Coli.  They then inserted a Salmonella enzyme to randomly flip genetic material, waited for a bit, and exposed the E. Coli to antibiotics.  Any bacteria that survived would have had to form the entire resistance gene, thus “solving” the problem.  I’d be interested to know where they go next with this kind of technology.  Clearly the DNA computing system they’ve created can solve certain problems much faster than a normal PC.  But the obvious problem is priming the system so that it actually solves the problem.  You have to put in the plasmid/enzyme/etc that’s akin to the code for a computer program.  The more complex problems you want to solve with bacteria the more “stuff” you have to prime the system with and, as every scientists knows, there are always consequences of putting foreign materials into living things.

On the other hand, I’m looking forward to a day when I try to calculate something in Excel and my computer transfects bacteria to do it.

Hypochondriacs FTW

John Timmer over at Arstechnica has an good rundown from the World Science Festival.  Specifically, he summarizes a panel about the prospects of genetic testing.  Not like the simple genotyping currently done to see if patients are carrying mutations or markers for a select few disorders but whole genome scans, producing a vast array of information for multiple phenotypes.  The holy grail of genomics is a scenario in which your DNA can be easily and quickly sequenced, risk factors in your genetic code identified, and therapies prescribed.  Clearly that scenario does not currently exist.  All the panelists agreed on one thing: genetic testing hasn’t gotten to a point where it’s a viable basis for treatments.  And I completely agree with that.  Right now the technology does little more than provide hypochondriacs lots of stuff to worry about.

The problem I have is the negative vibe that comes across from some of the panel.  Sure, running a SNP chip on your DNA right now would accomplish practically nothing.  The chip would be laughably incomplete and you’d only be getting a test for the fraction of disease-related SNPs that we’ve identified.  That doesn’t mean the technology should be shunned or put down.  You have to crawl before you can walk, other trite phrases, etc.   Technology is an exponentially growing field.  And as the gaps in our knowledge base get filled in, we’ll be able to provide better and better diagnoses for patients.  Each individual marker or polymorphism may only be a tiny piece of information when determining disease risk.  If I have a G instead of a T somewhere, maybe I have a 0.5% higher risk of getting Disease X.  But putting together a large number of them forms a foundation for a quality prediction.  Now you’ve got the genotype for hundreds or even thousands of revelant points in the genome.  And their benefit is exponential as we learn not only how they relate to risk by themselves but in conjunction with the other polymorphisms.  We may never reach the holy grail scenario I mentioned earlier (possibly because of environmental factors) but the potential is still there and that’s a reason for optimism.  Besides…if we don’t push forward with genetic testing the hypochondriacs will be stuck in the past, using WebMD to diagnose themselves with various ailments.  Won’t somebody please think of the hypochondriacs!?

Bring on the cyborg future

It’s always good to end the week with the knowledge that our society is that little bit closer to creating our cyborg overlords.  From Dean Kamen (the guy who brought you the Segway scooter) comes “Luke”, a robotic arm controlled by a series of pressure pads and other controls.  In addition to being just plain badass and a far more useful display of Kamen’s technological genius than the Segway,  it movies us one creepy step further into cyborg territory.  Soon this king of technology will pave the way for the true cyborgs who will inevitably rely on eugenics in an attempt to perfect their remaining human components while forcing the rest of us to do their bidding.

But wait, you say…there’s a huge flaw in this plan.  Everyone knows that cyborg software technology often warps the human brain, turning the “person” into a promiscuous nymphomaniac.  How will the cyborgs keep from diluting the gene pool of their robotic master race?  An Australian research team found the simple answer: remote controlled implants that can block the vas deferens.  Now these horrible combinations of man and machine can hump anything that will sit still long enough and not have to worry about pregnancy unless they decide to allow it.   And as a huge added benefit, they can install them in the rest of us non-cyborgs to keep our population under control.  Leave it to Australians to mess up our only hope: overpowering them with sheer numbers.

In vitro chicken-meat…?

Science allows us to do plenty of cool and creepy things.  But whether you’re into weird science for resurrecting extinct species or just to grow ears on the backs of mice, PETA wants you to know that they’ve one-upped you.

PETA is offering a $1 million prize to the contest participant able to make the first in vitro chicken meat and sell it to the public by June 30, 2012. The contestant must do both of the following:

• Produce an in vitro chicken-meat product that has a taste and texture indistinguishable from real chicken flesh to non-meat-eaters and meat-eaters alike.
• Manufacture the approved product in large enough quantities to be sold commercially, and successfully sell it at a competitive price in at least 10 states.

First off, I would like to salute PETA on this. Usually they strike me as militant dolts, but the phrase “in vitro meat” is a stroke of brilliance. The idea itself is doomed to failure at the moment though. Many vegetarians won’t eat the meat because “animal cruelty” is not their primary reason for being vegetarian in the first place. And the number that do switch over to eating in vitro meat will probably be offset by people who are scared or weirded out by the concept itself and refuse to eat it. Plus, even if they can get people to eat it, there’s still the problem of cost. The amount of R&D needed to grow edible tissues in culture will be astronomical (and the $1 million prize is likely a laughable drop in the bucket). All of that money will be reflected in the price of the meat and realistically, crazy organic-loving hippies aside, there’s probably not a huge market for bizarre pseudo-chicken that costs more than regular chicken.

UPDATE:

Upon seeing this I immediately thought of an episode of Sci-fi Channel’s blissfully goofy Eureka.  It took me a while to find the info but a blog over at tvguide by pgoody had a succinct summary of what I remember:

With that crisis averted, Jack turns his attention to the “dumb virus” and soon deduces that all the dummies all ate chicken at Café Diem. After investigating the chicken farm, Jack finds out that the chicken farmer doesn’t want to kill birds so she uses stem-cell technology to grow independent chicken parts (yummy?). The cloned chicken parts, while organic, causes some chemical reaction that makes people who eat them stupid. A vegetarian doctor, who kept her smarts, develops the antidote, and all goes back to “normal” at GD.

Episode was from Season 2 called “E=MC…?” Not that I expect anything of the sort to happen in real life but it reminded me of that whole fiction to reality surealness I posted about earlier.

-Mike

Lab Cleanup Day

If you are a devotee of CSI or its less attractive siblings, you probably have a skewed view of laboratories. The CSI laboratory is a wonderous place. A mixture of beautiful whites and blues paint scenes of an organized and sterile environment. Sexy people roam this shangri-la using their Bruckheimer-granted skills to do in 15 seconds what takes mere mortals hours or days (no, you can’t get a DNA match from a piece of evidence in under a minute). At the risk of ruining any mystique the show may have given me and my brethren, the show is a lie…albeit an entertaining one. The real-life lab is a dirty and cluttered place, more of a graveyard for old data and outdated technology than anything else. But sometimes a group of scientists with the right mix of daring and foolishness will attempt to impose order on the chaos.

The last attempt at a Lab Cleanup Day in our lab was likely prior to 1997. Either that or in the past decade nobody saw the need to remove a list of lab rules dating to that year and referencing individuals nobody currently in the lab has ever heard of. Either way it was clear going in that it wasn’t going to be a particularly easy or enjoyable afternoon. I signed up to help with the “Corner of Mystery”, which was an area near the chemical hood that people had been using for storing anything and everything they couldn’t be bothered to find a real place for. During the excavation, I pulled out a confusing array of junk:

1) A PC tower with an Intel Pentium II processor and a Power Macintosh G3, both of which Wikipedia assures me were discontinued early in 1999.

2) Carbon dioxide tanks that were still partially full and just left in an alcove. Yes, those are the same kind of pressurized tanks that can fall, crack open, and then be propelled violently around by the gas escaping the cylinder.

3) A huge blue, hexagonal contraption that was outfitted with multiple hoses coming out the sides. Underneath a pile of stuff stacked on top of it was a faded note saying not to store things on top of it. Not being exactly sure what it was but knowing it hadn’t been used in quite some time, we just hid it in the radiation area.

4) Mouse skin samples…maybe. The absence of any definitive labels left the true identity of the samples a mystery but it looked like there might have been fur on some of them. We threw them on top of the blue thing in the radiation area along with some other samples we thought were too toxic to deal with.

So for anyone who’s looking for an old PC or Mac from the late 90’s…I’d love to help you but you’ll have to look elsewhere. My boss had us keep them. You know, just in case.