Mix one part enthusiasm, two parts engineering and three parts biology — and you’ve got a recipe for do-it-yourself genetic engineering.
Every November, college kids from Michigan to Munich descend on MIT, eager to show off their biohacking skills. In the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, teams battle one another to build the coolest synthetically altered organisms. If you want to create a microbe that will sniff out and destroy contaminants in mining waste ponds, or a cell that will produce drugs right in your body, iGEM is for you.
Pioneers of synthetic b... (p. 32)
View the video After a day of computer programming and poring over genetic data, Pardis Sabeti relaxes her brain by writing rock songs.
Born in Tehran, Sabeti is a computational biologist at Harvard and the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT. She studies human evolution — past, current and future. Her cutting-edge work on the adaptations of humans and the microbes that infect them placed her among the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders for 2012. And when she’s not in the lab, she’s the lead singer of an alternative rock band in Boston called Thousand Days.
“When my brain... (p. 36)
Brian Brown can discover a new kind of fly anywhere. He often takes up the search in exotic locales such as New Zealand, Chile or Taiwan, but he’s not picky. Once, he was challenged to find a new species in a Los Angeles backyard. After setting a trap and waiting, he pulled out a winner: “Turns out it was a new species, the first thing I pulled out of there,” he says. And it wasn’t a fluke. The second fly was a member of a species previously known only in Europe.
A self-described novophile, Brown says he and fellow fly lovers “are junkies for the new and different.” So far, he has... (p. 32)
View the videos
Howie Choset is a roboticist, but his team’s creations bear little resemblance to C-3PO or R2-D2. Instead, Choset finds inspiration in nature — specifically, snakes.
“A lot of people have this notion that robots are modeled after people,” says Choset, of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. But the animal kingdom is full of organisms that use different types of locomotion, he says.
The snake robots in Choset’s laboratory can slither, roll, swim and climb straight up. These slender machines, usually built from a series of metal pieces containing motors and e... (p. 32)
For 10 years, Taina Litwak’s job was to draw almost nothing but mosquitoes. As a science illustrator in Washington, D.C., for the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, Litwak helped document disease-transmitting species that might endanger soldiers overseas.
Today, Litwak’s work offers a bit more variety: She’s an “art department of one” in D.C. for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Systematic Entomology Laboratory. She helps scientists describe insects that threaten crops or forests, as well as bugs that could kill these pests. This means illustrating beetles, ... (p. 32)
NASA’s newest rover, Curiosity, wasn’t alone on Mars for long.
Two hours after Curiosity landed in Gale Crater on August 6, her cranky alter-ego plopped down with a huff on the Red Planet. That is, a virtual alter ego named Sarcastic Rover appeared on Twitter and began updating followers about her exploits. “Oh sure,” she tweeted early on. “I can't think of anything I'd rather be doing than driving around a wasteland looking at dirt for the rest of my life.”
Sarcastic Rover (@SarcasticRover) tweets about the desolate Martian wilderness, her silent, rocky companions, and the dru...
Found in: Atom & Cosmos and Science & Society
Catharine “Cassie” Conley has the coolest job title at NASA: She’s the agency’s planetary protection officer. (The best title used to be “director of the universe,” but a reconfiguration a few years back eliminated that job description, she says.)
Since 2006, Conley (right) has been charged with preventing Earth from being overrun by extraterrestrial microbes or other contaminants brought back by NASA explorers. She also makes sure spacecraft don’t carry stowaways that could spread to other planets or later be mistaken for E.T. “I’m a policeman, basically,” she says.
Only... (p. 32)
View the videos
At age 13, Wayne Maddison spied the metallic-green jaws of a spider marooned on a raft of vegetation floating on Lake Ontario. He rescued the young creature, and ultimately made a pet of her and one of her young. Along the way, he fell in love with their family — jumping spiders. That intense affection has never waned. Forty years later, Maddison, now scientific codirector of the Beaty Biodiversity Museum in Vancouver, is among the foremost authorities on these stealthy pouncers of the arachnid world.
Last year, Maddison tallied some 175 distinct jumping spider species as h... (p. 32)
When a group of women in Lisbon, Portugal, entered a cooking contest in 2006, they decided to put their own spin on a Portuguese fish soup. The team created green fettuccine from gelatin flavored with coriander and garlic, meant to mimic an algae bed. Egg yolk–sized spheres, made of algae extract and filled with fish soup, nestled on top.
The contestants had been asked to apply ideas from molecular gastronomy, a field exploring the science of cooking. In 2007, the Lisbon team founded a molecular gastronomy company called Cooking.Lab. The group educates chefs and the public about the field,... (p. 32)
Found in: Chemistry and Food Science
Matt Patrick’s office is perched not far from the summit of Hawaii’s busiest
volcano: Kilauea. When it erupts, he has a good view. Of course, it’s his job to see every possible vista of the peak, whether it’s flying over in a helicopter, hiking to fissures and along lava fields or checking webcams, seismometers and satellites. Working at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, Patrick is part of a team that monitors the volcano’s every tremor, eruption, burp of gas and lava path. This diligence helps researchers track potential danger and understand the details ... (p. 32)