Were Giant Viruses the First Life on Earth? | Simons Foundation

Chantal Abergel and Jean-Michel Claverie

At more than 1.5 micrometers long, pithovirus is the largest virus ever discovered — larger even than some bacteria. Many of its 500 genes are unrelated to any other genes on this planet.

Chantal Abergel and Jean-Michel Claverie were used to finding strange viruses. The married virologists at Aix-Marseille University had made a career of it. But pithovirus, which they discovered in 2013 in a sample of Siberian dirt that had been frozen for more than 30,000 years, was more bizarre than the pair had ever imagined a virus could be.

In the world of microbes, viruses are small — notoriously small. Pithovirus is not. The largest virus ever discovered, pithovirus is more massive than even some bacteria. Most viruses copy themselves by hijacking their host’s molecular machinery. But pithovirus is much more independent, possessing some replication machinery of its own. Pithovirus’s relatively large number of genes also differentiated it from other viruses, which are often genetically simple — the smallest have a mere four genes. Pithovirus has around 500 genes, and some are used for complex tasks such as making proteins and repairing and replicating DNA. “It was so different from what we were taught about viruses,” Abergel said.

The stunning find, first revealed in March, isn’t just expanding scientists’ notions of what a virus can be. It is reframing the debate over the origins of life.

Scientists have traditionally thought that viruses were relative latecomers to the evolutionary stage, emerging after the appearance of cells. “They rely on cellular machinery to help with their replication, so they need to have some sort of primitive cell to make use of that machinery,” said Jack Szostak, a biochemist at Harvard University and a Nobel laureate. In other words, viruses mooch off cells, so without cells, viruses can’t exist.

But some scientists say the discovery of giant viruses could turn that view of life on its head. They propose that the ancestors of modern viruses, far from being evolutionary laggards, might have provided the raw material for the development of cellular life and helped drive its diversification into the varied organisms that fill every corner of the planet.

Yuri Wolf

Computational biologist Eugene Koonin believes viruses may hold the key to the evolution of cellular life.

“These giant viruses are the perfect example of how a world of simple viruslike elements could evolve into something much more complex,” said Eugene Koonin, a computational biologist at the National Institutes of Health. Koonin described his theory for a viral origin of life in a paper published in June in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews. He and others are accumulating evidence that viruslike elements spurred several of the most important stages in the emergence of life: the evolution of DNA, the formation of the first cells, and life’s split into three domains — Archaea, bacteria, and eukaryotes. Archaea and bacteria are all unicellular organisms, and eukaryotes emerged after an ancient fusion event between an archaeon and a bacterium.

The predominant theories for the origin of viruses propose that they emerged either from a type of degenerate cell that had lost the ability to replicate on its own or from genes that had escaped their cellular confines.

Giant viruses, first described in 2003, began to change that line of thinking for some scientists. These novel entities represented an entirely new kind of virus. Indeed, the first specimen — isolated from an amoeba living in a cooling tower in England — was so odd that it took scientists years to understand what they had. They first assumed the amorphous blob was a bacterium. It was roughly the same size as other bacteria and turned a brilliant indigo when stained with a chemical that adheres only to some bacteria. Try as they might, however, even a team of crack British microbiologists couldn’t grow the organism in the lab. Because many types of bacteria are difficult, if not impossible, to grow in the lab, the scientists didn’t think much of it and put the sample in the freezer.

Nearly a decade later, a curious graduate student in England took samples of the organism to Didier Raoult, a microbiologist in France who specialized in difficult-to-grow bacteria. He looked at the blob, only this time with a powerful electron microscope. As luck would have it, Abergel and Claverie were collaborating with him on another project. They immediately recognized the organism’s viruslike shape — imagine a 20-sided die, with each face a triangle — even though the specimen was several times larger than any virus either had seen.

When Abergel and Claverie looked at the virus’s genome, they found it contained nearly 1,000 genes — as many as some bacteria. The scientists named it mimivirus, for MImicking MIcrobe virus, because amoebae appear to mistake it for their typical bacterial meal.

Chantal Abergel

Jean-Michel Claverie, a virologist at Aix-Marseille University, collecting samples on a hunt for giant viruses around the world.

Abergel and Claverie suspected that giant viruses abound in the natural world but go undetected because of their size. They took samples of amoebae-filled water from nearly every locale they visited. In two samples — one from a stream in Melbourne, Australia, and one taken off the coast of Chile — they found an even bigger virus growing in amoebae, which they named pandoravirus and described in a study in the journal Science last year. “We repeated every experiment 10 times because this virus was so weird,” Abergel said. “We kept thinking we had made a mistake.”

Jean-Michel Claverie

Along with Claverie, Chantal Abergel, also a virologist at Aix-Marseille University, found pandoravirus, a giant virus, off the coast of Chile. It has the largest genome of any virus, with approximately 2,500 genes.

With a staggeringly high number of genes, approximately 2,500, pandoravirus seemed to herald an entirely new class of viral life. “More than 90 percent of its genes did not resemble anything else found on Earth,” Abergel said. “We were opening Pandora’s box, and we had no idea what might be inside.”

Then, several months ago, they found pithovirus, which dwarfs even pandoravirus in size and possesses genes equally as strange. These bizarre genes immediately led scientists to speculate on the origin of giant viruses. Since pithoviruses genes were so different from anything else scientists had seen, it seemed possible that the ancestors of giant viruses had evolved early in life’s history. This idea, however, conflicted with the generally accepted view that viruses didn’t evolve until much later. Giant viruses provide the perfect opportunity to study how viruses evolved, since they are only distantly related to other viruses and afford an as-yet unseen perspective on virus evolution. But when exactly did viruses emerge — before or after the development of cellular life?

Koonin is firmly in the “before” camp. According to his theory, dubbed the Virus World, the ancestors of modern viruses emerged when all life was still a floating stew of genetic information, amino acids and lipids. The earliest pieces of genetic material were likely short pieces of RNA with relatively few genes that often parasitized other floating bits of genetic material to make copies of themselves. These naked pieces of genetic information swapped genes at a primeval genetic flea market, appropriating hand-me-downs from other elements and discarding genes that were no longer needed.

Chantal Abergel and Jean-Michel Claverie

Three recently discovered giant viruses — mimivirus (top), pandoravirus (middle) and pithovirus (bottom) — have caused scientists to rethink the importance of viruses in the evolution of life. These viruses have been ideal to study because they are like nothing else ever seen on Earth.

Over time, Koonin argues, the parasitic genetic elements remained unable to replicate on their own and evolved into modern-day viruses that mooch off their cellular hosts. The genes they parasitized began to evolve different types of genetic information and other barriers to protect themselves from the genetic freeloaders, which ultimately evolved into cells.

The Virus World Theory is closely related to the RNA World Theory, which says life first evolved as small pieces of RNA that slowly developed into complex DNA-carrying organisms. The Virus World Theory agrees that life’s genetic material began as RNA. But it differs by arguing that the ancestors of viruses evolved before cells.

Supporters point to a few lines of evidence. First, the diversity of viruses far exceeds that found in cellular life. “Where diversity lies, origin lies,” said Valerian Dolja, a virologist and plant cell biologist at Oregon State University who collaborates with Koonin. According to this perspective, if viruses developed from cells, they should be less diverse because cells would contain the entire range of genes available to viruses. It’s a recurring theme in evolutionary biology: One of the reasons we know humans originated in Africa is that genetic diversity among residents of that continent is much greater than it is anywhere else. If this pattern of diversity is true for humans, Dolja said, there’s no reason it can’t also be true for viruses.

Viruses are also more diverse when it comes to reproduction. “Cells only have two main ways of replicating their DNA,” said Patrick Forterre, a virologist at Paris-Sud University. “One is found in bacteria, the other in Archaea and eukaryotes.” Viruses, on the other hand, have many more methods at their disposal, he said.

Forterre suggests that viruses evolved after primitive cells but before modern cells. Some of the viruses that infect the three different domains of life share several of the same proteins, suggesting that they may have evolved before life diverged into these three branches. Forterre has yet to identify any of these proteins in cellular life, except in a snippet of DNA that was clearly the result of the insertion of viral genes. “Viruses had to exist before the last universal common ancestor of all life on Earth,” Forterre said.

Alive or Not?

Giant viruses have further blurred the definition of what it means to be alive. According to the standard definition, traditional viruses are not alive because they lack the machinery to replicate their genes and must steal those found in their cellular hosts. But giant viruses seem to lie somewhere between bacterium and virus — alive and not. They have some genes involved in replication, which indicates that they may have once been free-living organisms that devolved into viruses. Some researchers say that means they deserve their own branch on the tree of life, creating a fourth domain that would leave the other three — Archaea, bacteria and eukaryotes— largely intact. Also supporting the idea of a giant viral branch is their genetic weirdness: Giant viruses have unusual genes that aren’t found on other branches of the tree.

Despite their unusual genes, giant viruses have been grouped into a larger family of viruses known as the nucleocytoplasmic large DNA viruses, which includes smallpox. Giant viruses are much more complex than smallpox, so scientists initially thought they evolved later than their more traditional viral cousins. But more recent work indicates that these viruses also evolved very early in the history of life. Gustavo Caetano-Anolles, a bioinformatics specialist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, traced the evolutionary history of proteins found in several giant viruses in a 2012 study in the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology. His work shows that these viruses “represent a form of life that either predated or coexisted with the last universal common ancestor,” the most recent organism from which all other organisms on Earth are descended. If giant viruses are as old as Caetano-Anolles’ calculated, the implications are staggering. It means that a giant virus or one of its ancestors existed before other types of life and may have played a major role in shaping life as we know it. This could mean that viruses are one of the dominant evolutionary forces on this planet and that each organism has a deep, viral past.

Russell Chun for Quanta Magazine

Giant viruses, shown in blue, are closer in size to E. coli bacteria than they are to traditional viruses, such as rhinovirus and HIV. A human red blood cell is shown for reference. Giant viruses also have many more proteins than traditional viruses, though still fewer than E. coli.

Szostak agrees with Koonin and others that viruses have been a powerful evolutionary force and that they evolved earlier than scientists previously thought. However, he distinguishes between parasitic genetic elements (small pieces of genetic material that use other pieces of genetic material to make copies of themselves), which he agrees were likely present before the development of cells, and true viruses, which can’t exist without cells.

“Whenever you mix a bunch of small RNA molecules together, you get a bunch of parasitic sequences that aren’t good at anything except making copies of themselves faster than anything else,” Szostak said. For these sequences to become similar to modern viruses, they need to parasitize a living cell, not just another strand of RNA.

Dolja disagrees, saying that cells could not have evolved without viruses. “In order to move from RNA to DNA, you need an enzyme called reverse transcriptase,” Dolja said. “It’s only found in viruses like HIV, not in cells. So how could cells begin to use DNA without the help of a virus?”

Abergel and Claverie, however, believe that viruses emerged from cells. While Forterre and collaborators contend that the unique genes found in giant viruses are a sign that they evolved before modern cells, Abergel and Claverie have a different explanation: Giant viruses may have evolved from a line of cells that is now extinct. According to this theory, the ancestor of giant viruses lost its ability to replicate as an independent life form and was forced to rely on other cells to copy its DNA. Pieces of these ancient cells’ genes survive in modern mimivirus, pandoravirus, and pithovirus, which would explain the unique genes found in this group. “Life didn’t have one single ancestor,” Claverie said. “There were a lot of cell-like organisms that were all competing, and there was one winner, which formed the basis for life as we know it today.”

It’s unlikely the debate over when and how viruses first evolved will ever be settled — that’s the nature of trying to answer a question whose history has faded with time. But Abergel and Claverie continue to believe that giant viruses will be key to any answers that emerge. The pair hunts for even larger, stranger iterations, which they hope will reveal not only the evolution of giant viruses, but perhaps of all viruses. “Everywhere we look, we find giant viruses,” Claverie said. “Either we’re brilliant or these things are everywhere.”

Corrected on July 11, 2014: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described a characteristic virus shape as a 20-sided die, with each face a hexagon. Each face of the die is a triangle, and the shape looks like a hexagon in two dimensions.

This article was reprinted on NationalGeographic.com.

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Deep-sea octopus broods eggs for over 4 years—longer than any known animal

This deep-sea octopus (Graneledone boreopacifica) spent four and one half years brooding her eggs on a ledge near the bottom of Monterey Canyon, about 1,400 meters (4,600 feet) below the ocean surface. Credit: MBARI

Researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) have observed a deep-sea octopus brooding its eggs for four and one half years—longer than any other known animal. Throughout this time, the female kept the eggs clean and guarded them from predators. This amazing feat represents an evolutionary balancing act between the benefits to the young octopuses of having plenty of time to develop within their eggs, and their mother’s ability to survive for years with little or no food.

Every few months for the last 25 years, a team of MBARI researchers led by Bruce Robison has performed surveys of deep-sea animals at a research site in the depths of Monterey Canyon that they call "Midwater 1." In May 2007, during one of these surveys, the researchers discovered a female octopus clinging to a rocky ledge just above the floor of the canyon, about 1,400 meters (4,600 feet) below the ocean surface. The octopus, a species known as Graneledone boreopacifica, had not been in this location during their previous dive at this site in April.

Over the next four and one-half years, the researchers dove at this same site 18 times. Each time, they found the same octopus, which they could identify by her distinctive scars, in the same place. As the years passed, her translucent eggs grew larger and the researchers could see young octopuses developing inside. Over the same period, the female gradually lost weight and her skin became loose and pale.

The researchers never saw the female leave her eggs or eat anything. She did not even show interest in small crabs and shrimp that crawled or swam by, as long as they did not bother her eggs.

The last time the researchers saw the brooding octopus was in September 2011. When they returned one month later, they found that the female was gone. As the researchers wrote in a recent paper in the PLOS ONE, "the rock face she had occupied held the tattered remnants of empty egg capsules."

After counting the remnants of the egg capsules, the researchers estimated that the female octopus had been brooding about 160 eggs.

Most female octopuses lay only one set of eggs and die about the time that their eggs hatch. The eggs of Graneledone boreopacifica are tear-drop-shaped capsules the size of small olives. As the young develop inside the eggs, they require plenty of oxygen. This means that the female octopus must continuously bathe the eggs in fresh, oxygenated seawater and keep them from being covered with silt or debris. The female must also guard her eggs vigilantly to prevent them from being eaten by predators.

Because the young octopus spend so much time in their eggs, by the time they hatch they are fully capable of surviving on their own and hunting for small prey. In fact, the newborns of G. boreopacifica are larger and better developed than the hatchlings of any other octopus or squid.

In their recent paper, the researchers point out that octopus eggs, like those of other invertebrates, develop more slowly in cold water. The seawater near the ocean floor at the Midwater 1 site is about three degrees Celsius (37 degrees Fahrenheit), which is typical for the depths of Monterey Canyon.

Given this chilly environment, it’s not surprising that octopuses are not the only deep-sea animals to brood their young for long periods of time. One type of mysid (a shrimp relative that is abundant in depths of Monterey Canyon) carries its eggs for 20 months and goes without food the whole time. Like octopus hatchlings, the young of this shrimp also emerge from their eggs as fully developed miniature adults.

Such long brooding times present an evolutionary challenge, especially for animals such as octopus, which do not live very long. As the authors noted in their paper, "The trade-off within the reproductive strategy of deep-living octopods is between the mother’s ability to endure a long brooding period and the competitiveness of her hatchlings. Graneledone boreopacifica produces hatchlings that are very highly developed, which gives them the advantage of a high potential for survival."

This research suggests that, in addition to setting records for the longest brooding time of any animal, Graneledone boreopacifica may be one of the longest lived cephalopods (a group that includes octopuses, squids, and their relatives). Most shallow-water octopuses and squids live just a year or two.

"The ultimate fate of a brooding female octopus is inevitably death," the researchers wrote, "but in this first example from the deep sea, brooding also confers an extension of adult life that greatly exceeds most projections of cephalopod longevity."

Although long-term observations of deep-sea animals are rare, the researchers propose that extended brooding periods may be common in the deep sea. Such extended life stages would need to be taken into account in assessing the effects of human activities on deep-sea animals. In any case, this strategy has apparently worked for Graneledone boreopacifica—it is one of the most common deep-sea octopuses in the Northeastern Pacific.

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Here’s How You Turn a Parking Garage Into a Great Playground | Design | WIRED

Copenhagen, like many cities around the world, is preparing itself for a new era in dense urban living. After all, over half of the global population now lives in cities. Copenhagen in particular is expecting 100,000 new inhabitants by 2025, a statistic that’s motivated the city to develop two new compact living centers: Orestad and Nordhavn.

The Nordhavn district is being built along out-of-use shipping docks, and once completed it will have parks, apartments, and offices. It’s also going to need people (it’s being designed to accommodate 40,000), which is why this year the City and Port Authority put out a peculiar request for proposal for local architects. The challenge? Turn this run-of-the-mill, gridded parking garage into a neighborhood attraction by designing a new facade. “It’s like asking for a second layer to the car park,” says Kathrin Susanna Gimmel, a partner at Jaja Architects, who won the competition. “We thought it was very exciting because you’re not restricted by some things, like a building needing to be insulated.”

Illustration: Jaja Architects

Free from the usual constraints, Jaja Architects designed Park ‘n’ Play: a new outfit for the not-yet-built parking garage that’s part playground, part gym, part Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The main event—the playground—is on the roof, so the firm designed a set of staircases that snake upward around the garage’s exterior, creating a loud visual language seen from blocks away.

“One of the design challenges was how to make people aware that something is happening on the rooftop,” Gimmel says. “How do you bring them up there, since the activity on the ground floor and the top floor are not connected?” It’s a feature adapted from the zig-zagging escalators on the exterior of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, designed by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers. “Moving up the stairs is an experience of itself. There’s this really amazing view over the harbor and over the city,” Gimmel says.

Even before the City and Port Authority awarded the commission to Jaja, the actual structure of the parking garage was set in stone. The city has built garages in the past, and saw what worked and what didn’t. Somewhat surprisingly, they also saw people using them for exercise. Copenhagen is a flat, coastal city, and the ramps in garages provided a rare incline for working out—almost like the seats in an American football stadium. Jaja decided to encourage that behavior by including clocks in the stairs for tracking time, and with painted graphics on the ground that can be helpful for Crossfit-like workouts.

That functionality is great, but Park ‘n’ Play still needs to be pretty. Plant boxes are woven throughout the facade, and the north, south, east, and west-facing walls all have a different species of climbing greenery, to optimize growth in different amount of light. Under normal circumstances it would take the plants 25 years to creep up to the top of the building; because of the staggered pattern of the plant boxes, these will only need a few. Planting on a grid structure had another added benefit for the Jaja team: “We did not wish to conceal the parking structure entirely,” Gimmel says, “but to keep and enhance the beauty of the structure.” So, you know, people still know where to go park.

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New display tech corrects for bad eyesight, makes reading glasses a thing of the past | ExtremeTech

The gadgets of the future might be able to compensate for your crummy vision so you can leave the reading glasses on the desk. A prototype system developed by University of California, Berkeley uses your optical prescription to tailor the image on a screen to your eyes, essentially counteracting what the optics of your eye are doing to mangle the light. The best part is this technique requires only minor modifications to existing technology as most of the magic is happening in software — it’s computational correction, not optical correction.

Glasses or contact lenses are designed to correct for the way a person’s eyes improperly refract light. Ideally, the light rays should be focused on the retina at the back of the eye, not in front of (nearsightedness) or behind (farsightedness) it. The Berkeley display technology, developed by computer science researcher Brian Barsky and his team, can alter light from each pixel to tune it to the imperfections of the eye so the image appears clear when it arrives. It’s sort of like putting the corrective lenses directly on the screen instead of on your face.

Luckily, this doesn’t require an entirely new screen technology that only exists in a laboratory somewhere. The team used an iPod Touch fitted with a thin acrylic filter over the screen. The filter is covered in thousands of tiny, evenly spaced holes for light to pass through. This creates a type of “light field display” capable of controlling the way light rays emanate from the screen. In this case it is used to create a sharper image.

This approach is certainly neat, but it shares a lot of problems with glasses-free 3D screen technologies. The de-blurring effect only works in a narrow viewing angle and for just one person at a time. Well, more accurately, for one prescription at a time, but you probably don’t want to share a screen with someone based solely on matching optical focal lengths — or maybe that’s going to be a new checkbox for internet dating. If your eyes don’t match the corrective index of the display, you won’t see a clear image, and the same is true if you move your head too far away from center. That’s not a huge problem for a handheld mobile device like a smartphone or the iPod Touch used in the study, but wouldn’t work very well for a TV.

The study was done with a DSLR and a series of lenses to mimic the human eye, but the next step is to design a version of the filter and accompanying software that can be used in the real world. The researchers speculate that a display about double the resolution of the iPod could also allow more than one viewer to use the same display simultaneously. An iPod Touch has a pixel density of 326 pixels per inch, and the highest currently available on a mobile device is the LG G3′s 1440p LCD at 538 PPI. That’s not too far off. When most people end up needing some sort of corrective lenses in their lifetimes, this technology could make the gadgets of the future much more convenient.

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Regeneration therapy from Biplastiq can rejuvenate tissue with light | ExtremeTech

By John Hewitt on July 30, 2014 at 3:17 pm

Stem cell technology can not come soon enough. Transplants of cells engineered to shuttle lifesaving medicines and the genes of youth may now be as coveted as Gollum’s golden ring, but the most precious cargo they might carry is something else entirely. The company that aims to bring us this new power is called Biplastiq, and their magic ingredient is a bit of fancy genetic reprogramming which allows mitochondria to be controlled with light.

Recently, it was announced that regulations for mitochondrial replacement to create so-called three-parent embryos will be put before the British Parliament. This technology would replace the faulty mitochondria inside an egg with healthy ones from a donor so that mothers with genetic preconditions could have healthy children. By contrast, Biplastiq aims to replace normal mitochondria with genetically-enhanced mitochondria that contain a protein that augments their function when illuminated. Previous research has demonstrated that free mitochondria can be coaxed into producing more energy in the form of ATP by low level light therapy (LLLT). This effect presumably occurs by altering the function of essential protein in mitochondria known as cytochrome c oxidase.

Taking a cue from this natural effect, researchers sought to magnify it, and make it more reliable. One issue regarding the absorption of light by cytochrome c, is that it changes depending on the chemical state (oxidation state) of the iron and copper atoms contained at its core. Last year, researchers were able to transfect a bacterially-derived, light-activated protein (known as delta rhodopsin) into mitochondria, and use it to directly control the electrochemical potential across their membranes. Essentially what they did is enhance the “proton motive force” to produce additional energy in the same way that chloroplasts do in plants.

What good is this for humans?

Recently we described new research aimed at helping veterans with traumatic brain injury. Perhaps even more insidious than these assaults is the suite of symptoms that falls under the blanket malady of Gulf War Syndrome. During that time many soldiers were tasked with disposing of chemical nasties in the desert, not to mention also having to breathe acrid smoke from nearby burning oil wells. Added to that toxic background, he likely was battling an internal antibody storm created by having to juggle vaccinations against everything from anthrax to botulism. The common theme most readily identifiable in this multifarious state seems to be poorly performing mitochondria.

Whether we call it mitochondrial disease, dysfunction, or disorder, one thing for sure is that it affects a lot of people. These illnesses can not usually be diagnosed with simple genetic tests. Typically doctors try to measure them using metabolic tests to gauge levels of critical enzymes in the blood. Unfortunately these methods are often imprecise and there is much confusion in the field. The high profile case of medical prisoner Justina Pelletier has given much publicity to the cause with news of her recent release from a Boston hospital. In her case, doctors at odds with each other ultimately turned against Justina’s family with the law on their side in a shocking abuse of medical and legal power.

Justina’s disease, and Gulf War Syndrome, illustrate what appears to be the effect of cumulative attacks on our mitochondrial energy production system. This diffuse network has considerable heterogeneity both inside each single cell, and across different cell populations in the body. This complexity means that the first applications of Biplastiq’s technology may be more geared to cases where the damage is not very severe, or the disease etiology (circumstance and cause) is more precisely known. Multifaceted afflictions (like Gulf War Syndrome) may one day be treated with stem cell emissaries loaded with custom mitochondria, but more likely, the first case use will be in energy intensive applications like regeneration or tissue repair.

Today, if I showed up at the ER with a serious medical situation, and were sent home with a shot and a fancy flashlight I might be a bit concerned. However new technologies now in the pipeline are more than just the average bili light. Bili lights, we should mention, are an extremely effective phototherapy tool used to fix the symptoms of jaundice in newborns. In this case blue light converts bilirubin (a breakdown product from hemoglobin normally excreted into the bile) in the body into a form that can be secreted in the normal waste disposal pathways. In this way a simple light protects the child from otherwise inevitable brain damage like cerebral palsy.

Where a bili light is an example of a simple but very useful treatment, what Biplastiq hopes to offer is several steps more advanced. A more apt example of the therapeutic light technology we are talking about now is the DARPA/NASA-funded WARP lamp project. This LED-based device has been successfully applied to wound healing and operates at least in part through the cyctochrome c effect described above. When coupled with genetically modified cells and mitochondria to sharpen, localize, and amplify these kinds of effects, light therapy will have much more to offer. I talked to spokesman Christopher Powell about their new technology and he seemed filled with optimism:

“BiPlastiq is being developed with an eye toward supporting a broad portfolio of regenerative applications. We believe that our strategy has the potential to improve the efficacy of any cell-based therapeutic platform. Generally, we envision that its effect on such platforms would be somewhat analogous to a cutting-edge computer processor’s ability to improve the quality of the latest PC.

As large-scale biotechnology firms make substantial headway into the arena of cellular and gene therapy, we believe there is real opportunity for (smaller) highly specialized firms, like ourselves, to produce the component architecture required to refine these therapies and bring their true potential to light.”

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Fan-free PC uses copper foam for quiet cooling – CNET

The SilentPower PC sidesteps cooling fans by using a foam-like copper substance to chill out the machines.

It looks like a scrubber, but acts like a heat sink. SilentPower

As I stand at my desk writing this, I’m listening to the low, constant whir of the fan on my desktop PC. It’s background noise, a regular part of my day, but I wouldn’t miss it if it was gone. German company SilentPower believes PCs should be used and not heard. It’s currently crowdfunding a PC with a different kind of cooler made from copper foam.

The SilentPower PC is tiny, with its longest dimension being just over 6 inches. It runs Windows 8.1 and sports an Intel Core i7-4785T processor. There are four USB ports packed into the small space. The most noticeable part of the design is the copper foam piled up on top. SilentPower says the heat-dissipating properties of the foam means a fan is no longer necessary.

SilentPower is aiming to raise around $60,000 (45,000 euros) to go from prototype to production. It’s gathering the money through preorders and donations. A base model with 8GB RAM and a 500GB solid-state drive is going for $935 (699 euros) while the highest end version with 16GB RAM and a 1TB drive is going for $1,550 (1,159 euros). The company hopes to start production by the spring of 2015.

The small size, quiet operation, and unusual looks could make the SilentPower quite the conversation piece as part of a living-room system. The compact design means the computer components aren’t upgradeable, though SilentPower is looking into ways to offer upgrade options should it reach its funding goal. If it outlives its usable life, you could always repurpose it as a very expensive kitchen scrubber.

As usual with crowdfunding projects, it’s up to the buyer to decide whether to plunk down the money on an unproven product. The concept behind the SilentPower PC is certainly clever, though it looks like it could be a minor pain to keep clean if you have shedding pets who like to hang out around your computer. SilentPower says a vacuum will provide sufficient cleaning for the foam piece.

A closer look at the copper foam on a prototype. SilentPower

(Via Gizmag)

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New Tech Sheds Light on the Future of Food​

LED growing lights, delivering sunlight whatever the weather
Credit: Philips View full size image

This article was originally published at The Conversation. The publication contributed the article to Live Science’s Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

The challenges of growing enough food to feed the world have grown more severe in the 21st century. We need to feed more people with limited agricultural land and . We need to make better use of land, light and logistics for an increasingly urban population. And we need to incorporate zero-waste and low-energy technologies into the task of food production. What can achieve the intensification of food supply we require, but in a way that is also sustainable and less harmful to the environment?

There is an urgent need to develop new methods for sustainable food production. This includes a greater emphasis on urban agriculture such as vertical farming which, properly designed and planned, could provide the sustainable means to improve food supply we need. Ideally, urban agriculture fits neatly alongside or within existing buildings in a self-contained and sustainable manner without competing for resources. Such urban plots can be at ground level or on rooftops. They can use greenhouses in order to take advantage of the sun’s energy, or grow indoors with the help of artificial lights.

Vertical Farming is promising because it requires no soil, and can space and energy – and improve crop . It takes advantage of the vertical space of city buildings rather than turning over wide expanses of land to agriculture and uses advanced greenhouse technology: hydroponics or aeroponics, and environmental controls that regulate temperature, humidity and light to produce vegetables, fruits and other crops year-round.

In large cities such as New York, Chicago, Tokyo and Singapore, these ideas are taking root. Singapore has taken local urban farming to a high level – Skygreens has built the world’s first commercial vertical farm in large three-storey greenhouses, providing a sustainable source of fresh vegetables.

The cost of growing

Vertical farming’s biggest limitation is energy consumption. Considerable energy is required to a closed, indoor greenhouse facility’s artificial lighting, heating and cooling, and hydroponic or aeroponic growing systems. The amount of energy required per unit of product is an important factor for ensuring not only that the farm is sustainable, but that it is economically viable. Recently, more and more studies have focused on pairing solar panels and wind turbines with greenhouses to provide self-generated renewable electricity on-site.

But the single technology that will be key to making vertical farms possible is lighting. New LED light technology is the key that makes it possible to build vertically integrated farms. This kind of artificial light has an extremely high photoelectric conversion efficiency, consuming only one eighth the power of incandescent lamp, half of the power of fluorescent lamp, and using a lower supply voltage (6-24V) that makes it safer to work with and reduces transmission losses.

They’re also physically small, have a long service life, lower , generate less heat, and can produce light of varying intensity. Because it produces less heat, the light can be moved closer to the plants. This increases efficiency, not just in terms of energy use but by allowing layers of growing plants to be more densely packed, making more efficient use of space.

LED lights can be tuned to emit only a narrow wavelength of light, they can be combined to create perfect lighting that provide light on the ideal spectrum for a plant’s growth. Evidence is emerging that specific wavelengths of light have distinct effects on crop yield, , and even pest and disease resistance.

There is potential for these multifunctional techno-greenhouses built around LED grow lights to increase the quality of the food we eat and the amount that we can grow with the same land and resources: the very 21st-century problems we now face – and through technology are getting closer to solving.

Chungui Lu receives funding from the UK Technology Strategy Board to work on developing LED lighting for horticultural crops.

Erik Murchie receives funding from the UK Technology Strategy Board to work on developing LED lighting for horticultural crops.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article. Follow all of the Expert Voices issues and debates — and become part of the discussion — on Facebook, Twitter and Google +. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.

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