The human cost of conflict-free

The human cost of conflict-free

"Legitimizing" Congo’s conflict minerals means thousands are losing their livelihoods.

by Bianca Consunji

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo — Serge Patrick, father of three, used to own a refrigerator. He was proud of it; the appliance was a sign of prestige in his neighborhood. But when he lost his job as a miner and there was no food left to chill, Patrick sold the fridge, along with other domestic necessities, to fill stomachs as empty as his house.

“I used to have more,” Patrick said, gesturing to the bare walls of his home. “I had a radio and good chairs. A table. I sold them because we were going hungry.”

He paused. “One of my children starved to death.”

Patrick led me down his neighborhood in the crowded Birere Quarter in Goma, covering his nostrils to mask the stench of canals choked with garbage. It was a warm day, and a group of bystanders stood in the shade of mud-thatched houses to take refuge from the heat. Mostly unemployed miners like Patrick, they sauntered over to put in their two cents when they saw me wielding a camera. Soon enough, the small group swelled to a crowd of roughly 25 men.

“Tell her the Obama Law is making us Africans suffer very much,” one miner said to Patrick.

“No, man! You should say Obama has to go away,” interrupted another.

“Stop smiling. They will not believe you are suffering,” said one more.

Diggers search for coltan and tourmaline in a mine in Numbi, South Kivu

The "Obama Law" the miners referred to is the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Section 1502 requires companies listed in the U.S. Stock Exchange to disclose their supply chains for products containing minerals from the Democratic Republic of Congo and its adjacent countries. The regulation was born out of a growing concern over revenue raised from conflict minerals — that is, raw mineral ore sourced from armed groups, particularly in Congo.

Under the law, American corporations are compelled to report their supply chains to the Securities and Exchange Commission. It does not expressly prohibit companies from using conflict minerals. But as a result, a handful of corporations such as Intel, Apple and Motorola launched campaigns to eliminate them from their products.

While some companies pledged to stop using raw mineral ore sourced from Congolese armed groups, even more international buyers responded to the law by sourcing their minerals elsewhere and going “Congo-free,” rather than harm their reputations by being associated with rampaging warlords.

When you break a black market, some of the innocent beneficiaries of the black market will no longer be able to benefit from it.

Months after the law’s enforcement, sales of tin ore from the DRC’s North Kivu province plummeted by more than 90%. In 2009, Congo produced more than 12,000 tons of tin ore, accounting for 4% of the world total. The number dropped to 2,900 tons in 2011.

The Dodd-Frank Act came on the heels of DRC President Joseph Kabila’s six-month mining ban in 2010, an attempt to end the bloodbath caused by armed rebel groups to seize control over minerals. The ban plunged thousands of miners into joblessness; many insist the Dodd-Frank Act further drove investors away from the region. But the policy’s nuances are lost on many miners, who often still misinterpret its provisions as a direct ban on minerals from Congo.

Electronics companies funded roughly 15 years of civil wars in Congo by supporting the black market for tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold. Collectively referred to as “3Ts and gold,” the $2 billion conflict mineral market kept guns loaded, boots polished and private armies fed for warlords, prolonging decades of terror within the country.

For instance, General Bosco Ntaganda, nicknamed “The Terminator” for an unchecked five-year period of murder and mass rape conducted by his rebel group, supported a taste for fine wines and lavish homes with taxes collected from mines in North and South Kivu. A 2011 United Nations report claimed Ntaganda was making $15,000 per week at just one border crossing alone. (The country’s average per capita income is $680, with a 71.3% poverty rate.)

The power struggle between various armed groups in the DRC has been called the deadliest conflict since World War II. More than 5 million people were killed and another 2 million were displaced. Congolese soldiers systematically raped tens of thousands of women in an unprecedented display of sexual violence as a weapon of war. Many of the victims were children.

The Dodd-Frank law was created with the intent to prevent even more wars by stemming the source of their funding, but the policy shift came with unplanned collateral damage: The livelihoods of thousands of Congolese miners.

"Black markets have innocent beneficiaries,” said Toby Whitney, former legislative director of Rep. Jim McDermott, who worked on the law’s conflict minerals provision. “When you break a black market, some of the innocent beneficiaries of the black market will no longer be able to benefit from it. The Central African mineral black market has been one of the largest black markets in the world for decades. It was fueling the war to burn hotter than it would have, otherwise.”

Whitney added, “This is about the math of lives. You can choose to keep the black market going, but at the cost of violence done unto other people a hundred miles away.”

Westerners are the people who handle all the politics.

"Westerners are the people who handle all the politics,” Pascal Tshikaya Kamina told me as we sat in his backyard while he separated grains of coltan from cassiterite with a magnet. Coltan, he claims, used to fetch $120 a kilogram. Now, it sells for a paltry $20. Cassiterite went for $15 a kilo, but has since dropped to $5.

“The Obama Law did not help us at all,” Kamina said. “There are other places in Africa that also suffer from conflict, but they never put a ban on their minerals.”

The middle-aged Kamina became a miner at 14. With his earnings, he built a home and started a family, but now can barely make ends meet as the past few years bore witness to the rapid devaluation of his labor.

“Before the law, life was good,” said Kamina. “Today, a life of digging minerals is a life of hardship."

Kamina recalled his life before the Dodd-Frank Act: regular meals and warm clothing, essential in the mountain climate. Bread, cheese and wild honey for supper; tall bottles of pale beer and roasted meat on special occasions. The good days, he said, are simply a memory.

Like many miners, Kamina cannot think of another way to make a living, save for joining a rebel group out in the bush. Armed insurgents in the region who no longer control mines allegedly make money by robbing banks and collecting illegal taxes and tolls.

He blames the law for an increasing number of crimes in eastern Congo.

“Many people in Congo are in prison because of the low prices of minerals,” he said. “Hunger can make a bandit out of anyone.”

The DRC’s fabled soil is said to contain every natural mineral listed on the periodic table. Pits streaked with gray coltan are a stone’s throw away from the piles of mud that conceal tourmaline, a semi-precious gemstone that comes in an array of colors: pink, green, red, blue, and a specimen called "watermelon" for its resemblance to the summery fruit.

Diggers eke out a living through artisanal mining, small-scale operations performed with crude hand tools and very little machinery. To be able to dig from a site, miners must pay multiple fees, including registration taxes. They make their money by selling to comptoirs — traders who buy and sell minerals wholesale — in the DRC.

The payoff is relatively high: Diggers can make anywhere from $10 to $50 per week depending on their luck, while the average Congolese worker makes do with $10 a month.

But the lack of infrastructure surrounding the sector led to dehumanizing working conditions for decades. Prior to the implementation of the Dodd-Frank Act, an estimated 2 million people worked as artisanal miners in the DRC, 40% of whom were child laborers. Miners often face the threat of landslides, falling boulders and asphyxiation — not to mention exploitation from unscrupulous government agents who extort money from workers.

In June, the Enough Project reported that 67% of tin, tantalum, and tungsten mines in eastern Congo provinces are allegedly no longer under military control as a result of the Dodd-Frank Act. Previously, armed groups sold 3T minerals to electronic companies and smelters without question. But after 2011, with no takers among western companies, they turned to Chinese companies to unload minerals at a steep discount of up to 60%.

“A kilo has become $1.5, and there’s no market,” an armed group commander told the Enough Project. “How many kilos would you then need to feed all of these men?”

As of February 2014, more than half the mines in Rubaya, which was once controlled by a rebel group that oversaw years of mass murder and rape, are certifiably conflict-free.

While Rubaya is just one of the mining towns upheld as a success story of the Dodd-Frank Act, it is still not immune from occasional clashes between the Congolese army and rebel groups. During my visit, a scuffle broke out in the town plaza. No one knew what was happening, but shortly after, a group of men carried out a body covered with a sheet.

Little fuss was made.

“We are still harassed in the mining sites,” said Mukagegyo Sekanabo, a 61-year-old négociant who buys and washes raw mineral ore from diggers before bringing it to warehouses.

But she seemed less concerned with the militia than with the lack of honest buyers in her village, which dwindled to a single comptoir over the years.

“We are suffering by the fact that only one person is holding the power to buy,” she said. “And that person is cheating us.”

Chinese mining companies have long been under fire for committing human rights abuses against Congolese miners, particularly in failing to uphold safety standards. Comptoir owners, many of whom are immigrants from mainland China, were reluctant to answer questions.

I visited several comptoirs in Goma to speak with the proprietors in an attempt to understand how the Dodd-Frank Act affected their businesses. As an Asian woman, entering the warehouses was simple enough: On multiple occasions, Congolese workers frequently let me in without asking their Chinese employers.

“You must be one of their neighbors!” a security guard beamed at me before opening the gates.

The comptoir owners, upon discovering I was not there to conduct business and was from the Philippines instead of China, invariably escorted me out the door.

The six-hour drive from Goma to Numbi, a mining village perched on a mountain in South Kivu, is treacherous at best. Motorists have to frequently get out of their cars to assess the pockmarked roads the way a captain would scan the open sea; a fearless driver is as important as a four-wheel drive vehicle.

Even then, a road full of potholes cannot disguise Congo’s natural resources: a checkerboard of cassava and peanut plants battling for space on the mountain slopes, fields dotted with cows milked to produce wheels of salty Goma cheese. But money from agriculture is — quite literally — peanuts. The real wealth of Congo lies in the battleship-gray fragments of rock lodged in the ground.

In Numbi, the system that supposedly legitimizes the Dodd-Frank Act is crude at best. To get a conflict-free certification, proprietors merely have to label sacks of minerals with handwritten notes identifying their origin. Under the new system, bags of raw material are tagged and certified as conflict-free before being sent to smelters (industrial plants that process mineral ore into metal) in different countries.

Even then, the process of turning raw ore into components for electronic chips is murky, as companies are mostly reliant on information coming from mines and smelters. The journey from a mine in Congo to a gadget in the United States is a long one that can take more than a year, with multiple road blocks that can throw the real origin of the minerals into question.

“I can’t tell you that this exact chip has had this exact stuff from this mine,” said Carolyn Duran, supply chain director of Intel Corporation and project manager of its conflict-free minerals program. “That’s just simply not the way it works. But we can say that chip is sourced from these smelters, and these smelters have components from the DRC, and that we checked that sourcing.”

“Honestly, we cannot be 100% sure [they’re conflict-free],” Duran said.

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich said the company is changing its strategy to ensure all its processors will contain conflict-free minerals by 2016 without having to pull operations out of the DRC.

"DRC-free does not equal conflict-free," Duran said. "Despite all our efforts, we’re one piece of a big puzzle."

Honestly, we cannot be 100% sure [they’re conflict-free].

Francois Salongo Sala, chief of the Numbi Mining Sector, thinks the Dodd-Frank Act is one of the best things to happen to Congo.

“The population works freely and safely,” he said. “Our minerals here in Numbi can no longer be called blood minerals, because we do not have armed groups.”

It is Sala’s duty to see the Dodd-Frank Act enforced in his town; a printed sign at his office door reminds miners to declare the value of collected minerals. If they fail to, the message warns, “officers will come after you.”

Francois Salongo Sala, chief of the Numbi Mining Sector, is responsible for seeing the Dodd-Frank Act enforced in Numbi, South Kivu.

Before allowing a visit to the mines, Sala ushered me to his office, where seven assistants solemnly examined my accreditations, scrutinizing the signatures in the dim light. He opened a ledger and drew out a handful of documents, brandishing each one proudly as he spoke: a government letter forbidding armed groups and child labor at the mines, a register of miner statistics, and trade records.

Despite his repeated assurances that there was no illegal activity at the mines, Sala sent an assistant to follow me around the next day.

“Children are not allowed here,” the assistant said. “The parents will be fined if they bring them.”

But on the way to a coltan pit, we found a stray child’s boot lodged in a puddle of mud. My translator later told me he overheard the staffer warning miners to keep their children away from the site during our visit.

Artisanal miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo saw their earnings decline drastically in the past two years as a result of Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Law.

Academic researchers and activists from Europe and the U.S. recently criticized reports of Congo’s demilitarization, saying the numbers were misleading. Christoph Vogel, a researcher from the University of Zurich who specializes in Congolese armed groups, challenged the Enough Project’s claims that 67% of mines are now demilitarized.

“There had never been a point when all the mines in Congo were controlled by armed actors,” said Vogel. “Even if you go back 10 to 15 years in history, when the big wars were raging in the region, mining was never under exclusive armed control.”

Vogel further argued in an open letter that the anti-conflict minerals campaign was causing even more harm to Congo’s economy.

“The movement risks descending into green-washing of the worst kind,” he said. “As multinationals improve their public image, in the Congo — the country on which this image is founded — no solutions are found, but they create new problems.”

A miner scoops up a handful of mud while washing minerals in Rubaya, North Kivu.

Congolese miners like Serge Patrick — father of three, former proud owner of a refrigerator, and the unwitting beneficiary of a black market that funded the death of millions — are not in a position to understand why the reserves of minerals that fed, clothed and sheltered their families for years can no longer put bread on the table.

Despite well-meaning intervention from legislators, corporations and nonprofit groups around the world, little has been done for Congolese miners in the policy tug-of-war. With no real livelihood programs to guide the drifting miners, a few, like Kamina, are contemplating a lawless life in the bush. Others have taken up subsistence farming, or motorcycle taxi driving.

Many simply live on increasingly less every day.

Patrick slapped the empty trough beside him in frustration. Like much of the equipment in the courtyard he shared with other miners, it was covered with dry soil and rusty nails. It had clearly been unused for a while.

"What can I do for my children if I do not have a job?” he said. “We have a lot of wealth in our country. Why can’t our people enjoy its wealth?”

The human cost of conflict-free

By Bianca Consunji

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Chiral Key Found to Origin of Life | Quanta Magazine

All life on Earth is made of molecules that twist in the same direction. New research reveals that this may not always have been so.

Brendan Monroe for Quanta Magazine

The mirror-image asymmetry of life is one of the biggest mysteries in biology.

For 30 years, Gerald Joyce has been trying to create life. As a graduate student in the 1980s, he studied how the first RNA molecules — chemical cousins to DNA that can both store and transmit genetic information — might have assembled themselves out of simpler units, a process that many scientists believe led to the first living things.

Unfortunately, he had a problem. At a chemical level, a deep bias permeates all of biology. The molecules that make up DNA and other nucleic acids such as RNA have an inherent “handedness.” These molecules can exist in two mirror image forms, but only the right-handed version is found in living organisms. Handedness serves an essential function in living beings; many of the chemical reactions that drive our cells only work with molecules of the correct handedness. But the pre-biological building blocks of life didn’t exhibit such an overwhelming bias. Some were left-handed and some right. So how did right-handed RNA emerge from a mix of molecules?

Joyce was able to build RNA out of right-handed building blocks, as others had done before him. But when he added in left-handed molecules, mimicking the conditions on the early Earth, everything came to a halt. “Our paper said if you have [both] forms in the same place at the same time, you can’t even get started,” Joyce said.

His findings, published in Nature in 1984, suggested that in order for life to emerge, something first had to crack the symmetry between left-handed and right-handed molecules, an event biochemists call “breaking the mirror.” Since then, scientists have largely focused their search for the origin of life’s handedness in the prebiotic worlds of physics and chemistry, not biology.

Olena Shmahalo / Quanta Magazine

Many molecules come in mirror-image forms, known as left-handed and right-handed. A chemical process will create both forms of a given molecule, but a biological processes will produce just one.

Three decades later, Joyce’s latest research has shown that perhaps life came first after all. Joyce, now at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., and Jonathan Sczepanski, a postdoctoral researcher, created an RNA enzyme — a substance that copies RNA — that can function in a soup of left- and right-handed building blocks, providing a potential mechanism for how some of the first biological molecules might have evolved in a symmetrical world. The new experiment, published in the November 20 issue of Nature, is reinvigorating the discussion over how life first arose. “They have really opened up a new realm of possible roads,” said Niles Lehman, a biochemist at Portland State University in Oregon who wasn’t involved in the study.

Even more intriguing, Joyce and Sczepanski’s enzyme works differently from other RNA-copying molecules, a discovery that may have profound implications for how life originated. The enzyme is much more efficient and flexible than other RNA-based enzymes developed to date, and it may provide the key to Joyce’s ultimate goal — making life from scratch.

A Crack in the Mirror

Louis Pasteur, the famous 19th-century French chemist, was the first to describe chemical handedness, or “chirality.” He was puzzled by the fact that crystals derived from the dregs of wine twisted light in a specific direction, but the same crystal synthesized in the lab did not. Examining the crystals under a microscope, he discovered that the synthetic chemical came in two mirror-image forms, which canceled out the polarizing effect. The crystal derived from wine had only one.

Scientists later discovered that this bias encompasses the entire living world. Synthetic chemical processes will generate both left- and right-handed molecules. But when nature makes a molecule, the product is either left- or right-handed. For example, all amino acids that are used to make proteins twist light to the left.

Indeed, chirality is an essential component of biochemistry. “It provides a form of molecular recognition,” said Donna Blackmond, a chemical engineer at Scripps and a colleague of Joyce’s. The chirality of a molecule affects how it interacts with other components of the cell. Molecular locks can only be opened with a key of the correct handedness.

Some scientists look to the heavens to explain how this biological bias first arose. Some meteorites show a slight predominance of left-handed amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, suggesting that the influence came from outer space. An alternative cosmic origin story proposes that circularly polarized light coming from a supernova triggered a bias. In addition, radioactive decays produce electrons that are slightly more likely to be left-handed. Such electrons raining down on Earth’s surface might have changed its early chemistry.

Yet most biologists and chemists are skeptical of these astrophysical theories. The bias they create is just too minute. The theories create “a beautiful union between life and nonlife,” said Marcelo Gleiser, a theoretical physicist at Dartmouth College. “But the problem is that those interactions are very weak and short-range.” According to Joyce, the effect of these physical forces would be lost in the noise of chemical reactions. “Such a small asymmetry in the universe is not enough to move the needle,” he said.

Biochemists have tended to favor an alternative proposal, that a chance occurrence of prebiotic chemistry triggered an initial disequilibrium. Perhaps a slight excess of right-handed nucleotides was trapped and amplified in a shallow pool or some other prebiotic test tube. Eventually the bias reached a tipping point, breaking the chemical mirror and setting the stage for the emergence of life. Blackmond has done extensive work showing how to transform a small asymmetry to a nearly complete one using purely physical and chemical means.

Shaking Both Hands

When Joyce entered the field 30 years ago, researchers were already trying to test some of the astrophysical theories. But Joyce was skeptical. “I thought, why are you trying so hard to find a universal explanation when it’s probably chance?” he said.

Courtesy of The Scripps Research Institute.

Gerald Joyce (right), a biochemist at the Scripps Research Institute, and postdoc Jonathan Sczepanski created an RNA enzyme that can replicate in an entirely new way.

Around the same time, scientists were trying to figure out how the building blocks of life — amino acids and nucleic acids — could have spontaneously formed into more complex molecules such as proteins, DNA and RNA. Joyce thought that this assembly process might generate a crack in the mirror. A reaction that selectively plucked right-handed building blocks from the primordial soup would quickly start to create only right-handed molecules, just as a machine that selects only red or only blue Legos from a mixed box would create single-colored towers.

Such a process would simultaneously solve two problems in the origins of life: It would create complex biological molecules while breaking the mirror. Joyce’s experiment in the 1980s set out to test that idea, but its failure called into question how right-handed RNA molecules could form from the ingredients of the primordial soup. “It was a mess,” Joyce said. “The left-handed building block poisons the growing chain.”

The findings were particularly problematic for the nascent “RNA world” theory, which proposed that life began with an RNA molecule capable of replicating itself. RNA is the best candidate for the first biological molecule because it shares characteristics of both DNA and proteins. Like DNA, it carries information in its sequence of bases. And like an enzyme, it can catalyze chemical reactions. (RNA enzymes are known as ribozymes.)

But if a ribozyme that copies RNA can’t function in a chemically symmetrical world, how could RNA-based life have emerged? “It’s kind of a showstopper,” said Peter Unrau, a biochemist at Simon Fraser University in Canada. In the decades since Joyce’s 1984 experiment, scientists have proposed myriad ways around the problem, from physical and chemical theories to RNA precursors that lack chirality.

Given the known limitations, Joyce began to focus on creating a simple ribozyme that could copy RNA when only right-handed blocks were around. His group had some success, but none that fulfilled the requirements of the RNA world theory.

So last year, Joyce and Sczepanski decided to start from scratch. They unleashed a pool of random right-handed RNA molecules and let them react in a test tube with left-handed building blocks. They hoped that within that random pool of RNA molecules was a ribozyme capable of stringing the building blocks together. They then isolated the best candidates — ribozymes that could copy RNA of the opposite handedness — replicated them, and subjected the new pool to the same trial over and over again.

In just a few short months, they had a surprisingly effective ribozyme. The right-handed version binds to a left-handed RNA template and produces a left-handed copy. The left-handed copy can then go on to produce a right-handed version. “It’s amazing what they did,” said John Chaput, a biochemist at Arizona State University in Tempe. “It really does get to the heart of the question of the origins of chirality and provides some solid evidence to move things forward.”

Perhaps even more exciting is how well the enzyme works. Other ribozymes created to date are too finicky to have spawned life; they replicate only certain RNA sequences, like soil that will grow potatoes but not carrots or peas. But Joyce’s ribozyme could produce a range of sequences — including its own. And it’s still getting better. The ribozyme in the paper emerged after just 16 rounds of evolution, a shockingly short run for this kind of experiment. Further rounds of evolution have already boosted its abilities, though these findings are not yet published. “The beautiful thing is that this is still a young enzyme,” Lehman said. “There’s lots of room for improvement.”

The new ribozyme nearly fulfills the most basic properties of life — the ability to replicate and to evolve.

The reason the new ribozyme works so well lies in the unusual way it operates. A regular ribozyme binds to its target according to its sequence of letters, like two sides of a zipper coming together. Sometimes it works too well, and the targets get stuck. This kind of binding only works with two molecules of the same handedness, which means Joyce’s ribozyme can’t bind this way.

Instead, it binds based on the molecule’s shape rather than its sequence, an approach that turns out to be much more flexible. “They found something completely novel,” Lehman said. “It goes to show there’s a lot out there we don’t know.”

Scientists now have an enzyme that doesn’t need a chiral world. Researchers, including Joyce himself, are still trying to understand the implications. The findings open the possibility that chirality emerged after life first evolved. “Maybe we didn’t need to break symmetry,” said Blackmond.

Jack Szostak, a biochemist at Harvard University and one of Joyce’s collaborators, is excited by the findings, particularly because the ribozyme is so much more flexible than earlier versions. But, he said, “I am skeptical that life began in this way.” Szostak argues that this scenario would require both left-handed and right-handed RNA enzymes to have emerged at the same time and in the same place, which would be highly unlikely.

Right-Handed Reign

If chirality emerged sometime after the origins of life, the question remains: Why did right-handed RNA win? Left- and right-handed molecules have chemically identical properties, so there’s no obvious reason for one to triumph.

Joyce and others suspect it’s simply chance. Say a ribozyme capable of transforming a pool of mixed nucleic acids into left- and right-handed RNAs appeared on the early Earth. It would produce two distinct groups, lefties and righties, which in turn might have functioned like competing populations. “If the right hand stumbles on useful mutations and runs away with the game, then the other side of the mirror can go dark,” Joyce said. For example, the right-handed group of RNAs might have developed some kind of competitive advantage, such as producing proteins, eventually overtaking the left-handed group and generating the bias we see today.

There is only one way to truly determine whether one hand is superior: Build life forms that twist in each direction and evaluate them side by side. George Church and collaborators at Harvard are aiming to do just that. If they can make mirror versions of all the cells’ parts, they can construct synthetic cells and compare otherwise identical left- and right-handed versions of life.

To create mirror-image RNAs, Church and his collaborators first need to make mirror enzymes capable of stitching together mirror building blocks. Michael Kay’s team at the University of Utah has almost finished developing a method for chemically synthesizing an ordinary version of one such enzyme. Once completed, the two teams will apply the same approach to make a mirror enzyme capable of assembling mirror RNAs. Church and others are also building tools to detect mirror life, which could prove important when searching for signs of life on other planets.

Joyce remains interested in making life from scratch. Everything else, including the chirality problem, is just a hurdle toward that larger prize, he said.

The new ribozyme may provide the best shot yet. It nearly fulfills the most basic properties of life — the ability to replicate and to evolve. “They went so far as to show the mirror image can copy itself,” Chaput said. “That gets very close to replication.” The next step will be to make that happen iteratively. “If you look in the mirror, make a copy, then put yourself in the mirror, and make a copy of the person in the mirror, then you have replication,” Chaput said.

That iterative process opens the possibility for evolution, as mistakes made during copying will allow the molecule to evolve new traits. “The real key to all of it has been setting up a system in the lab capable of evolution on its own,” Unrau said. “Jerry is close.”

Editor’s Note: Donna Blackmond, Gerald Joyce and Jack Szostak receive funding from the Simons Foundation as Simons Investigators.

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Study shows way to design ‘digital’ metamaterials

by Evan Lerner

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A metamaterial with a given permittivity can be designed out of any two materials, called ‘metamaterial bits,’ so long as the permittivity of one of the materials is positive and the other is negative. Borrowing terms from binary computing, … more

Metamaterials, precisely designed composite materials that have properties not found in natural ones, could be used to make light-bending invisibility cloaks, flat lenses and other otherwise impossible devices.

Figuring out the necessary composition and internal structure to create these unusual effects is a challenge but new research from the University of Pennsylvania presents a way of simplifying things. It shows that a metamaterial with a given permittivity can be designed out of any two materials, called "metamaterial bits," so long as the permittivity of one of the materials is positive and the other is negative.

Borrowing terms from binary computing, these "digital" metamaterials are composed of metamaterial "bits," which are combined into "bytes." These bytes can take different shapes, such as nanoscale cylinders consisting of one of the metamaterial bits wrapped in a shell of the other. In the case of the cylinders, by altering the radii of the cores and shells, as well as which of the two bits is on the inside or outside, the researchers were able to mathematically demonstrate that a bulk metamaterial of nearly any permittivity is achievable.

Furthermore, they have shown that by carefully arranging these bytes into more complicated overarching patterns, flat lenses, hyperlenses, and waveguides can be produced.

The study was conducted by Nader Engheta, the H. Nedwill Ramsey professor of Electrical and Systems Engineering in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, and Cristian Della Giovampaola, a postdoctoral researcher in his research group.

The study is featured on the cover of the December issue of Nature Materials.

"The inspiration came from digital electronics," Engheta said. "With binary systems, we can take an analog signal—a wave—and sample it, discretize it and ultimately express it as a sequence of 0’s and 1’s. We wanted to see if we could break down a material’s electromagnetic properties in the same way.

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Credit: University of Pennsylvania

"When you digitize a signal, you look at its magnitude in each point in time and give it value. We’re applying the same process to materials, looking at the permittivity it would need to have in each point in space in order for it to perform the function we want."

Permittivity is the property of a material that describes its reaction to an electric field inside it. As such, it’s a key quality to consider when designing optical devices, such as lenses and waveguides. Materials with the desired permittivity may not always exist in nature, however.

"We can’t just combine two materials and get the average of their permittivity values," Engheta said. "You might not even get a value that is between the two; combining a material with a permittivity of 2 and one of -4 might give you a material with a permittivity of 30. The geometry of how they are arranged with respect to one another is very important to getting to the value you want."

This phenomenon is critical to the design principles behind digital metamaterials bytes. For a certain set of metamaterial bits, when the material with positive permittivity (typically a dielectric) is on the inside, the permittivity of the byte ranges between the values of two the materials. When the material with negative permittivity (typically a metal) is on the inside, however, the overall value varies widely outside that range. Fine-tuning the ultimate permittivity of a byte then entails altering the thickness of each of the materials.

For simplicity’s sake, the researchers simulated metamaterial bytes made out of silver and glass in their study, but stressed that any pair of materials that followed the negative/positive rule would work.

"If I want a metamaterial with permittivity of 14, I can pick any two materials, as long as one is positive and one is negative, and select them based on the other properties I need for my application," Engheta said. "Silver and glass, for example, might not have the right mechanical or thermal properties for what I want to do, so I can select other materials and get to the permittivity I need by altering the radii and order of them in the metamaterial byte."

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Ella Marushchenko and Alex Tokarev. Cover Design: David Shand.

"This gives us a lot of flexibility," he said. "It’s just like how I can select the voltage I want to represent a ‘1’ in an electronic circuit. If it’s a regular circuit in the lab, a ‘1’ might be 5 volts, but if it’s a nanoscale device, I might want to have a ‘1’ be 5 microvolts."

The researchers selected the core-shell geometry of the bytes because it is a structure that materials scientists are already adept at constructing. Alternate byte geometries, such as ones constructed out of alternating layers of the two materials, are possible.

Once bytes are constructed, the way they are arranged in proximity to each other enables various optical applications.

"If we wanted to make a lens with a permittivity of 4, but didn’t have a single material with that value, we could take any two materials with the positive/negative rule and design bytes such that they each have a permittivity of 4," Engheta said. "If we arrange them together in the shape of the lens, the whole thing looks like it has a permittivity of 4 from the perspective of a light wave, even though none of the materials in it have that value."

"We can take it a step farther, and make a flat lens that focuses light in the same way," he said. "We could arrange bytes in a layers, but instead of their height changing, we change their permittivity so that it bends the wave in a manner expected from the lens."

With the ability to spatially vary the permittivity of a metamaterial in such a discrete way, other optical applications are just a matter of the proper arrangement. The researchers demonstrated the feasibility of digital metamaterial hyperlenses, which can image things smaller than the wavelength of light, as well as waveguides that channel light around curves and corners. Carefully arranged such that they channel light around an object, such waveguides would create the illusion of light passing through the object unimpeded, effectively rendering it invisible.

Explore further: Invisibility cloaks closer thanks to ‘digital metamaterials’

More information: Digital metamaterials, Nature Materials 13, 1115–1121 (2014) DOI: 10.1038/nmat4082

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IceCube Observatory Confirms The Discovery Of Cosmic Neutrinos

| by Jonathan O’Callaghan

Photo credit: The IceCube Observatory and a representation of the detection. IceCube Collaboration.

Millions of light-years away, a star explodes as a supernova and sends a host of subatomic particles called neutrinos in all directions. One of these heads towards our Solar System and, after millions of years, this tiny neutrino enters Earth’s atmosphere and collides with an atom inside a detector below the ice of Antarctica. The detectable signal produced not only confirms the neutrino’s existence, but also indicates where it has come from.

This is the amazing process that has now been confirmed to be taking place by the IceCube Collaboration in Antarctica. Neutrinos, nearly massless high-energy particles with no charge, are known to have sources here on Earth and in the Solar System, such as the Sun. But astronomers wanted to prove that they were also created elsewhere in the universe, covering vast distances of the cosmos. Now, they have that proof – and these neutrinos could act as subatomic signposts to exotic phenomena. The results are published in the journal Physical Review Letters.

The existence of cosmic neutrinos was hinted at in 2013 when two – dubbed Bert and Ernie – were found by the IceCube Observatory. However, astronomers needed to confirm that these were definitely not coming from a source in the Solar System. So they fired up the detector again and recorded 35,000 more neutrinos. Twenty-one of these were confirmed to have an energy high enough to indicate they came from beyond the Solar System – and possibly beyond the Milky Way.

“It is sound confirmation that the discovery of cosmic neutrinos from beyond our galaxy is real,” said Albrecht Karle, a professor from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a senior author on the study, in a statement.

Shown in red, the neutrinos were found across the sky. IceCube Collaboration.

The neutrinos were found by detecting 21 ultra high-energy muons. These are secondary particles created when neutrinos bump into other atoms. As neutrinos are almost massless, they are incredibly hard to detect aside from spotting these muons.

To detect them, the IceCube Observatory uses thousands of optical sensors beneath the ice at the South Pole. It can spot the muons because they move faster than the speed of light in a solid. Note that the speed of light isn’t being broken here – rather, light changes speed depending on what medium it is traveling through. In a vacuum it travels at its limit, but in things like glass and ice it travels slower. But muons are not limited in this way; they travel faster through matter, producing noticeable Cherenkov radiation – a light wave produced in their wake, similar to a boat moving through water.

The importance of finding the cosmic neutrinos is that they might point towards exotic phenomena in the universe. While we mentioned that they can form in supernovae, they are also thought to orginate in black holes, during star formation and elsewhere. But no single source has been found as the main culprit of neutrinos, something that might be discovered with future research.

“Cosmic neutrinos are the key to yet unexplored parts of our universe and might be able to finally reveal the origins of the highest energy cosmic rays,” said collaboration spokesperson Olga Botner of Uppsala University in Sweden in a statement. “The discovery of astrophysical neutrinos hints at the dawn of a new era in astronomy.”

Read this next: No, An Asteroid Isn’t Going To Hit Earth And Kill Us All Any Time Soon

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New Brain-Inspired Chip Can Perform 46 BILLION Synaptic Operations Per Second

| by Aamna Mohdin

Photo credit: Chip board. IBM

IBM researchers have been working on building a chip since 2008 that works like the neurons inside your brain. And they’ve just announced an exciting breakthrough. Scientists have developed a system that is made up of 48 million artificial nerve cells, which is about what you’d find in the brain of a small rodent.

The team has been working with DARPA’s Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics (SyNAPSE) for several years now. They showcased the significant progress they’ve made with their TrueNorth system during a three-week educational boot camp for researchers and government officials. According to Wired, the TrueNorth system is a network of chips that has 48 million artificial nerve cells, with each chip containing 1 million artificial cells each. These chips are “neuromorphic,” which means they’re designed to behave like organic brains.

IBM researchers suggest that traditional computers work like the left side of our brain, similar to a fast number-crunching calculator. They compare TrueNorth to right side of our brain, likening the system to "slow, sensory, pattern recognizing machines.”

IBM researchers note that they “have not built the brain, or any brain” but have built “a computer that is inspired by the brain.” The TrueNorth system has been developed to run deep-learning algorithms, which is similar to the AI technology used for Facebook’s facial recognition or Skype’s instant translate mode.

The key difference is that IBM’s chips are a lot smaller, use less electricity and are cheaper to run. The TrueNorth system can therefore insert this AI technology into a much smaller package, such as a phone or wristwatch. TrueNorth’s 5.4-billion transistor chip uses 70 milliwatts of power, Wired reports. In comparison, a standard Intel processor with 1.4 billion transistors uses about 35 to 140 watts.

“What does a neuro-synaptic architecture give us? It lets us do things like image classification at a very, very low power consumption,” Brian Van Essen, a computer scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, told Wired. “It lets us tackle new problems in new environments.”

It will take several more years before the chip will be available on the market, but according to IBM its unique architecture could solve “a wide class of problems from vision, audition, and multi-sensory fusion, and has the potential to revolutionize the computer industry by integrating brain-like capability into devices where computation is constrained by power and speed.”

[H/T: Wired]

Read this next: Shell Gets Final Permit To Allow It To Begin Drilling In The Arctic

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How America’s Most Useless Crop Also Became Its Most Commonly Grown One

Contrary to what you may think (and what your food labels may suggest) corn is not the most grown crop in America. The most grown crop is something no one is eating, no one is asking for, and no one is quite sure what to do with. It’s your lawn.

Top image: Satellite imagery of crops growing in Kansas / NASA Earth Observatory.

The U.S. devotes a full one-fifth of its land to agriculture (408 million acres, or 637,500 square miles) for farmers to grow on, of which corn is the largest food crop. However, there are almost 50,000 square miles of lawn growing in the U.S.—almost three times as much as corn.

So how does the country with the most farmland on the planet end up with a number one crop that’s purely decorative? It’s down to two things: Scale and a strange twist of technological history.

The History of the Lawn

Today, lawns are merely what you use to fill up an empty patch of dirt. They are the thing so common, so known, that the eye doesn’t even bother to stop and take them in, except in their absence. But that wasn’t always the case.

The very first lawn care instruction manual dates back to the 13th century written by Italian horticultural enthusiast, Pietro de Crescenzi. Just like lawn enthusiasts today, de Crescenzi had his own unique ideas of how to properly care for a lawn, though his favorite two practices—of first preparing the ground by dumping boiling water all over it and then limiting mowing to twice a year—failed to make it into the wider favor.

It wasn’t until about 400 years later, though, that lawns as we know them began to be seen commonly, and even then they were largely the province of the super-rich. The lawn was a symbol of that wealth, of course—of the kind of household that could afford to turn large tracts of land over to the cultivation of something essentially useless. But it was also considered something of a technological, perhaps even artistic, marvel. To understand just how much of one those early lawns were, you have to put yourself, briefly, in a pair of 17th-century shoes.

Image: A painting of Versailles—and its famous lawn and surrounding garden in 1668, Pierre Patel / Chateau Versailles.

Grass, when it was cut at all, was cut using hand tools (hence de Crescenzi’s early suggestion of a twice yearly mowing schedule). These were perfectly serviceable, but not particularly neat and certainly not anything even approaching manicured. To come across a well-kept lawn—green, neatly-edged, hewn down to a perfectly uniform height by an army of servants, and laid out tidily like some kind of outdoor carpet—was a kind of shock to the senses. It was something stunning, something a little uncanny, something deeply familiar turned strange.

What finally changed that was the invention of the lawnmower by English engineer Edwin Budding in 1830, who took the idea from the weaving machines he saw in the cloth mills. Suddenly, what could once only be accomplished by a staff of dozens of gardeners obsessively wielding a set of scythes, clippers and hoes, could now be done in an afternoon by one only vaguely attentive person. With labor no longer such a limiting factor, lawns started to appear more and more frequently in cities, which could now afford to throw down lawns in public spaces.

Image: Vintage lawnmower ad, 1954 / Simplicity.

By the start of the 1900s, that early push-mower had been replaced by the gas-mower and was being marketed to individual homeowners, who were also rapidly acquiring lawns of their own. Within a century, lawns had gone from the high-luxury market to simply the thing that filled the blank spaces around us.

Corn Vs. Grass: The Grudge Match

Okay, the lawn has become pretty hard to escape, it’s true. But corn is also one tough agricultural contender to battle with. America grows more corn than any other country in the world and it is the subject of our most intense agricultural fascination, research, and scrutiny. It’s our top agricultural crop and is grown across more than 400,000 U.S. farms, most of them dedicated primarily to corn. So how did the lawn manage to not just edge out corn, but trounce it three times over, all while barely meriting more than a passing glance from most farmers? Essentially, the triumph of lawns is a triumph of scale.

Most patches of lawn are small enough that, unlike farms, you can’t use satellite data to tally it up, which means that for a long time researchers didn’t even know how to get an accurate count of how much lawn we were growing. Finally, researcher Cristina Milesi came up with a project through NASA’s Earth Observatory using a combination of satellite data, aerial photographs, a measure of the total paved areas in the U.S., and a newly-derived mathematical formula to come up with this map of lawns around the nation:

Image: Lawns across the U.S. / Milesi via NASA Earth observatory.

It doesn’t look like much, spread out across the country like that, but together it adds up to 128,000 square kilometers (or about 50,000 square miles) of growth, three times that of the U.S. land occupied by corn.

It turned out that while corn was busily winning the farm, lawns were winning the home. Corn may be the apex predator of the farm, but lawns are our housecats: small, tidy, exceptionally demanding, and everywhere. In the end, lawns didn’t need the farm to survive—instead they just made farmers of us all.

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The human eye can see ‘invisible’ infrared light

The eye can detect light at wavelengths in the visual spectrum. Other wavelengths, such as infrared and ultraviolet, are supposed to be invisible to the human eye, but Washington University scientists have found that under certain conditions, … more

Any science textbook will tell you we can’t see infrared light. Like X-rays and radio waves, infrared light waves are outside the visual spectrum. But an international team of researchers co-led by scientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis has found that under certain conditions, the retina can sense infrared light after all.

Using cells from the retinas of mice and people, and powerful lasers that emit pulses of infrared light, the researchers found that when laser light pulses rapidly, light-sensing cells in the retina sometimes get a double hit of infrared energy. When that happens, the eye is able to detect light that falls outside the visible spectrum.

"We’re using what we learned in these experiments to try to develop a new tool that would allow physicians to not only examine the eye but also to stimulate specific parts of the retina to determine whether it’s functioning properly," said senior investigator Vladimir J. Kefalov, PhD, associate professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences at Washington University. "We hope that ultimately this discovery will have some very practical applications."

The findings are published Dec. 1 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) Online Early Edition. Collaborators include scientists in Cleveland, Poland, Switzerland and Norway,

The research was initiated after scientists on the research team reported seeing occasional flashes of green light while working with an infrared laser. Unlike the laser pointers used in lecture halls or as toys, the powerful infrared laser the scientists worked with emits light waves thought to be invisible to the human eye.

Frans Vinberg, PhD (left), and Vladimir J. Kefalov, PhD, sit in front of a tool they developed that allows them to detect light responses from retinal cells and photopigment molecules. Credit: Robert Boston

"They were able to see the laser light, which was outside of the normal visible range, and we really wanted to figure out how they were able to sense light that was supposed to be invisible," said Frans Vinberg, PhD, one of the study’s lead authors and a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at Washington University.

Vinberg, Kefalov and their colleagues examined the scientific literature and revisited reports of people seeing infrared light. They repeated previous experiments in which infrared light had been seen, and they analyzed such light from several lasers to see what they could learn about how and why it sometimes is visible.

"We experimented with laser pulses of different durations that delivered the same total number of photons, and we found that the shorter the pulse, the more likely it was a person could see it," Vinberg explained. "Although the length of time between pulses was so short that it couldn’t be noticed by the naked eye, the existence of those pulses was very important in allowing people to see this invisible light."

Normally, a particle of light, called a photon, is absorbed by the retina, which then creates a molecule called a photopigment, which begins the process of converting light into vision. In standard vision, each of a large number of photopigments absorbs a single photon.

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Our eyes aren’t supposed to be able to see infrared light because infrared light waves are longer than the waves in the visual spectrum, but new work from vision researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis finds that … more

But packing a lot of photons in a short pulse of the rapidly pulsing laser light makes it possible for two photons to be absorbed at one time by a single photopigment, and the combined energy of the two light particles is enough to activate the pigment and allow the eye to see what normally is invisible.

"The visible spectrum includes waves of light that are 400-720 nanometers long," explained Kefalov, an associate professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences. "But if a pigment molecule in the retina is hit in rapid succession by a pair of photons that are 1,000 nanometers long, those light particles will deliver the same amount of energy as a single hit from a 500-nanometer photon, which is well within the visible spectrum. That’s how we are able to see it."

Although the researchers are the first to report that the eye can sense light through this mechanism, the idea of using less powerful laser light to make things visible isn’t new. The two-photon microscope, for example, uses lasers to detect fluorescent molecules deep in tissues. And the researchers said they already are working on ways to use the two-photon approach in a new type of ophthalmoscope, which is a tool that allows physicians to examine the inside of the eye.

The idea is that by shining a pulsing, infrared laser into the eye, doctors might be able to stimulate parts of the retina to learn more about its structure and function in healthy eyes and in people with retinal diseases such as macular degeneration.

Explore further: Creating bright X-ray pulses in the laser lab

More information: Palczewska G, Vinberg F, Stremplewski P, Bircher MP, Salom D, Komar K, Zhang J, Cascell M, Wojtkowski M, Kefalov VJ, Palczewski K. PNAS Online Early Edition, Dec. 1, 2014 www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1410162111

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