While working as a professor in the sensory-motor systems lab at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH), Robert Riener noticed a need for assistive devices that would better meet the challenge of helping people with daily life. He knew there were solutions, but that it would require motivating developers to rise to the challenge.
So, Riener created Cybathlon, the first cyborg Olympics where teams from all over the world will participate in races on Oct. 8 in Zurich that will test how well their devices perform routine tasks. Teams will compete in six different categories that will push their assistive devices to the limit on courses developed carefully over three years by physicians, developers and the people who use the technology. Eighty teams have signed up so far.
Riener wants the event to emphasize how important it is for man and machine to work together—so participants will be called pilots rather than athletes, reflecting the role of the assistive technology.
“The goal is to push the development in the direction of technology that is capable of performing day-to-day tasks. And that way, there will an improvement in the future life of the person using the device,” says Riener.
Here’s a look at events that will be featured in the first cyborg Olympics.
Brain-Computer Interface Race
A woman sits at a computer while wearing a cap that has several electrodes attached to her head, wires cascading down her back waves. She’s playing a video game, but instead of using her hands, she’s using only her thoughts to drive a brain-computer interface system.
During the Cybathlon, participants with complete or severely impaired motor function will use their thoughts to control an avatar in a racing video game. The winner will be the first to complete the race, maneuvering an avatar over obstacles and accelerating to the finish line. An algorithm will help determine which team’s interface performed the best. Brain-computer interface devices are a key technologies that will allow people to control future prostheses with their minds.
Functional Electrical Stimulation Bike Race
Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) is a technique that sends electrical impulses to paralyzed individuals’ muscles to trigger movement. FES can help build muscle mass, increase blood circulation and and improve cardiovascular health. At Cybathlon, paralyzed bike racers will rely on FES to complete about five laps around a racetrack, equalling about 2,200 feet — first to the finish wins. Electrodes will deliver electrical stimulation to their muscles, giving them the leg-power to pedal their bikes. The pilots can actually control how much current they send to their muscles, so balancing speed and stamina will be key to winning the race.
Generally, electrodes are placed on a persons’s skin, but one team—the Center for Advanced Platform Technology from Cleveland—will surgically implant them closer to nerves where they can reach more fiber, reduce muscle fatigue and increase precision. Members of Team Cleveland developed implants — over the course of two decades — that allow a person with paraplegia to stand, perform leg lifts and take steps. For Cybathlon, they’ll adapt their system for bike riding.
Powered Arm Prosthesis Race
The powered arm prosthesis race will show just how important performing basic, daily tasks are to Riener. Pilots with arm amputations will need to carry a tray of breakfast items, for example, and then prepare a meal by opening a jar of jam, slicing bread and putting butter on the bread — tasks that are easy to take for granted. Pinning clothing on a clothes line and putting together a puzzle with pieces that will each require a different type of grip are also challenges in this event.
A prosthetic hand created by the M.A.S.S. Impact team from Simon Fraser University in Canada is a unique design that uses sensors and algorithms to recognize a grip pattern, and users can control the bionic hand in small, precise movements. The system also generates computer models to improve function over time. Last year, organizers held a Cybathlon rehearsal last year, and Riener was especially impressed by OPRA Osseointegratio, a Swedish team that designed a surgically implanted hand controlled by a person voluntarily contracting his muscles. The technology is currently in human trials, and the team’s pilot is the first recipient.
Powered Leg Prosthesis Race
Designing prostheses for lower limbs presents an entirely different set of challenges. Riener hopes to see prosthetic legs at the Cybathlon that can handle uneven terrain, which has been a challenge in the past. During the leg prosthesis race, pilots will compete on parallel tracks through obstacle courses laden with beams, stones, stairs and slopes. Right now, only the most advanced prostheses can handle these challenges — many are heavy and aren’t powerful enough.
Team Össur will bring four different prosthetic legs to the competition. Riener says this team in particular is making incredible advancements in the field. He’s particularly impressed with their commercially available motorized knee prosthesis, as he says it’s more robust and reliable than many past devices. The team is also entering a powered leg prosthesis that is an upgrade to the powered knee and is still a prototype stage; it uses motorized joints to help achieve a natural gait.
Powered Exoskeleton Race
Exoskeletons are worn around the legs to help those with paraplegia walk or even climb stairs. While they’ve been used by physiotherapists in hospitals to improve the health of patients with paralyzed legs, Riener says many designs are still bulky and difficult to use on a daily basis. There are about six companies around the world with exoskeletons on the market, and more prototypes are being developed in research labs around the world.
The Cybathlon exoskeleton event will include tasks that are particularly difficult for people using this technology to accomplish, such as stepping over stones and walking up a slope.
“With these challenges, we’re hoping to see more lifelike exoskeletons with more movability,” says Riener.
Powered Wheelchair Race
Those who use wheelchairs encounter challenges that other people might take for granted. Riener is excited to see how powered wheelchairs are evolving, getting smaller and more capable—in some cases even climbing stairs.
“At Cybathlon, they will have to fit beneath a table, go up a steep ramp, open a door and then close it again, and go down a steep ramp,” says Riener.
Scewo, a team from ETH Zurich developed a wheelchair that balances on two wheels like a Segway and can use a chain to climb up stairs or steep ramps.
While some of the teams are entering technology that is already on the market, Riener is especially excited to see new innovations that have been created from scratch, specifically for Cybathlon.
“It’s exciting to reach a large audience to talk about issues related to people with disabilities,” he says.
Until recently, monarchs have mostly been at Mother Nature’s mercy—contending with disease, weather fluctuations, and heavy predation in the wild.
Lately, however, the efforts of a well-meaning public to bring monarch eggs and larvae indoors to raise to maturity, or to purchase large numbers of farmed monarchs for release into the wild, may be making life even more difficult for the beleaguered butterfly. Experts suggest such activities expose monarchs to disease, interfere with its genetic diversity, and stymie scientists’ efforts to track its migration patterns. Sadly, this isn’t the first time our good intentions toward monarchs have gone bad.
“People know monarchs have been in trouble. Their numbers in Mexico have been low for the past several years,” says Sonia Altizer, director of Project Monarch Health and a professor at the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia. Scientists have observed declines by as much as 97 percent of historic highs and 97 percent of long-term population averages.
According to Sarina Jepsen, director of Endangered Species and Aquatic Programs at The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, “There were highs of almost a billion monarchs—like 800 million monarchs. Currently, this last year, I think we had counted in Mexico either 120 or 150 million.”
To help boost monarch populations, more and more gardeners and armchair naturalists are removing monarch eggs and larvae from the reach of predators, raising them indoors and subsequently releasing the adult butterflies back into the wild. Still others purchase large numbers of captive-bred monarchs from commercial butterfly farms for release into the wild. Sounds helpful, right? Wrong.
“I know people who purchase monarchs and use them in outreach and education, but, if you’re buying them with the goal of, ‘I’m going to release them and supplement the population,’ there are a lot of problems with that,” says Altizer says.
These practices troubled a group of leading entomologists and conservation biologists to such a degree that they set aside differences in opinion just long enough to issue a consensus statement against the release of purchased, mass-reared monarchs from butterfly farms. They also urged individuals rearing monarchs on their own to do so only while following safe rearing protocols and participating in citizen science programs such as the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project and Monarch Health.
Reaching that consensus wasn’t easy.
“There were some [conservationists] who thought people shouldn’t be rearing any [monarchs indoors.],” recalls Karen Oberhauser, a professor in the Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology at the University of Minnesota and director of the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project. “Well-meaning and smart people are going to disagree on a lot of things, and none of us has a monopoly on the truth.”
Elizabeth Howard, director of Journey North, an ongoing citizen science study of wildlife migration, notes, “I would say [the statement] could have been even stronger…. It’s such a balancing act, because all of us recognize how important the experience of raising monarchs is from a public education standpoint … Where it gets complicated is when you get into the question of how many. How many is enough? It’s the mass rearing that really raises concern.”
Most experts agree that mass monarch rearing—particularly via commercial butterfly farms—and mass butterfly releases (say for weddings, funerals, and other events) are nothing but trouble. On the topic of mass releases, famed lepidopterist Robert Michael Pyle writes, “When celebrants are misled into thinking that they are doing something ecologically acceptable, even positive, by tossing monarchs into the void at their events, they are in fact party to scientific vandalism; rather than acting ‘green,’ they are helping to undermine our ability to correctly interpret the response of wild monarchs to all the challenges they face.”
Hospice organizations across the U.S. have also adopted the practice. “The organization buys [farmed butterflies] and then they charge people to release them as part of their fundraiser. That’s why it’s becoming so embedded, because people are doing these annually now … they’re raising a lot of money,” says Howard.
“There is absolutely no educational message. In fact, if anything, there’s a disregard for what happens to the butterfly when everybody goes home,” she adds. For its part, the International Butterfly Breeder’s Association (IBBA) released its own statement in defense of mass butterfly releases.
On average, one dozen monarchs sell for about $100. A charity can then charge members of the public between $30 and $50 per butterfly, pocketing the difference.(15) But the monarchs themselves may be paying a higher price.
Commercial butterfly farms are largely unregulated, and the quality and health of the butterflies they produce can vary widely.
“With some growers,” says Altizer, “every single one of their butterflies is heavily infected, and, with other growers, none are. I don’t want to point a blanket finger at all commercial growers, but, in general, the risk is there. We’ve found that at least half of the commercial growers that we’ve looked at have problems with disease.”
Overcrowded conditions and poor hygiene are often to blame for the spread of Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE), a harmful protozoan that can cause serious deformities in adult butterflies. Some affected adults may appear healthy but still spread OE to other butterflies and larvae through the release of OE spores. Whether raised in a commercial facility or by well-meaning amateurs, sick, captive-reared butterflies that are released into the wild can contaminate existing, wild monarch populations.
“One of the things that is not mentioned in [our] statement is that butterflies all fly to the same place for the winter. So, if ever you were to think of a bad situation for any sort of communicable disease, you have it right there.” says Howard.
“I think also, in terms of raising a few [monarchs] in your back yard, or many, many, many people raising a few, it’s a drop in the bucket,” she continues. “The growth in the population would only be linear in that way, whereas the risk of disease is exponential. So, in terms of a numbers game, for every monarch you’re releasing, you’re adding one to the pool, but you’re potentially introducing disease that will spread exponentially.”
Butterflies reared indoors don’t always develop the proper physiology to migrate either. They are often slightly smaller than their wild counterparts—and wings that are just a millimeter or two shorter than average can spell disaster for a butterfly on its long flight to Mexico.
Natural environmental cues like decreased day length, more extreme day-night temperatures, and deteriorating milkweed quality cause monarchs to enter a pre-migratory state known as reproductive diapause.
“When they’re exposed to one or more of those combinations of cues, they’re more likely to enter that migratory physiological state where, instead of having developed reproductive organs and being ready to breed, their reproductive organs are actually underdeveloped … and, instead, their bodies are primed to just tank up on fat and nectar,” Altizer explains.
Instead, monarchs raised indoors may be exposed to consistently long periods of artificial lighting, constant temperatures (thanks to air conditioning), and only the choicest milkweed (thanks to the keepers feeding them) while in captivity—thereby removing the environmental cues essential for triggering that pre-migratory state.
Despite the potential pitfalls, in some instances, researchers believe it is still appropriate for individuals to raise small numbers of monarchs indoors.
“As long as [people are] rearing [monarchs] carefully, it’s not going to hurt those individuals or the population, and, if they’re reporting their data to a citizen science project, it’s going to help us understand monarchs,” says Oberhauser.
Altizer agrees, “In my mind, it’s not cut-and-dried, black-and-white where I would say people should absolutely never rear monarchs … there are some people who go to great lengths to educate themselves about hygienic rearing practices and about monarch disease, and go to great lengths to keep the conditions as natural as possible.”
Not ready to commit to a citizen science project? You can still be part of the solution for monarchs by planting native milkweed as well as nectar-rich plants and donating to organizations dedicated to monarch preservation, such as the Monarch Butterfly Fund and The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.
It’s a major component of solid rocket propellants. It allows water to exist as liquid on Mars, despite atmospheric pressure at the Martian surface being roughly 0.6 percent that on Earth. It also can be broken down to release oxygen that astronauts and future colonists in a Mars settlement could breathe.
It’s called perchlorate and it’s abundant on Mars –10,000 times more abundant in Martian dirt than in soils and sands of Earth. That may sound like a good thing, considering the useful properties of perchlorate, but there’s also a flip side.
Being a negative ion, perchlorate (ClO4–) forms various salts, but it has detrimental health effects. Potassium perchlorate is used as a drug to treat certain forms of hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid). But exposure to environmental perchlorate causes the opposite of hyperthyroidism, namely hypothyroidism — an underactive thyroid.
It would be devastating for Martian colonists.
An Ubiquitous Chemical Solves Two Mysteries
Perchlorate is all over the Martian surface. In 2009, NASA’s Phoenix lander identified perchlorate in the Martian dirt pretty much everywhere it looked. Then, last September, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter demonstrated very high concentrations of perchlorate salts within recurring slope lineae (RSL), features on the planet’s surface that were formed from relatively recent water flows. The finding solved a mystery of how Martian water could be liquid long enough to change the landscape.
Because of the thin atmosphere, pure water on the Red Planet can persist only as ice or vapor, depending on the temperature. But dissolved salts change the physical chemistry, enough that subsurface liquid water can emerge from time to time and stick around as lakes and streams.
Following the perchlorate could lead us to underground water, which in turn could lead to native microorganisms, a long-sought milestone in space biology. But it would also factor into the choice for landing sites for human missions and colonies, plus it would facilitate terraformation – changing the planet to be more like Earth.
A Source of Energy and Oxygen
The oxygen and energy contained in perchlorate make it a potential energy source on Mars, both for generating electricity and for rocket propulsion. Ammonium perchlorate was the main propellant in solid rocket boosters of the space shuttles that NASA flew from 1981-2011. Mars colonization, and even early human landings, will depend on utilization of Mars resources to fuel craft that will ferry people between the surface and orbit, where they will link with larger ships that make the interplanetary voyage.
Having four oxygen atoms per molecule also makes perchlorate useful to life-support systems. Colonists could employ certain microorganisms from Earth that break up the molecule to release O2. The extracted O2 could be pumped through life support systems of enclosed underground habitats.
Later, the process could be scaled up to enrich air that’s pumped into sealed caverns and craters to help achieve paraterraforming — creating Earth-like environments within limited enclosed areas rather than encompassing the entire planet.
Not a Solution for Liquid Water
Although high concentrations of perchlorate will maintain water in a liquid state, it would be toxic to drink and wouldn’t support microbial life. On Earth, salt-loving microorganisms thrive in the Dead Sea. However, Dead Sea salts are not perchlorate salts, and Mars’ surface water is far more briny than the Dead Sea — even more briny than Antarctica’s Don Juan Pond, where salinity is 44 percent.
Along with hypothyroid conditions, perchlorate has also been implicated in aplastic anemia and agranulocytosis, conditions characterized by a life-threatening deficiency of blood cells. Perchlorate is particularly dangerous for infants dependent on lactating mothers; that’s enough of a concern on Earth, but especially alarming on a new world that interplanetary colonists might populate.
This means that we’ll have to take extreme precaution to remove perchlorate from Mars water and dirt, or from any crops that we grow in it. Dust will have to be kept from contaminating air circulating through life support systems. Future explores and colonists will have to do all of this, not only as they capture the perchlorate in order to reap its benefits, but also as they confront space radiation, physical deconditioning from low gravity, and other potential Martian threats to human health.
Stone tools, like Acheulean hand axes, remain well-preserved for eons because they are stones first, tools second. Fired ceramics remain well-preserved for millennia because they are, in essence, human-made stone. Metal tools may, in some rare instances, endure for millennia, but their material hardness belies chemical fragility; most are not stable over the long term. Bone tools, like their metal counterparts, may remain well-preserved, but preservation is highly specific to local burial chemistry. Artifacts made of perishable plant and animal remains, such as clothing, shoes, nets, baskets, and many toys, are rarely well-preserved, and therefore not very well-understood. Read More
Gene therapy is all the rage among researchers in several fields of medicine, and the BBC America sci-fi TV hit Orphan Black has made sure to get its own piece of the action.
As with reproductive cloning and other biotech issues hashed out over the last four years, characters in the “The Black” are making references to gene therapy with a twist that’s far-fetched, but grounded in state-of-the-art science and real-life emerging possibilities.
With the season 4 finale set to air tonight, Orphan Black fans know what’s going on with those little maggot-shaped bioelectronic cheek implants. At least for some characters, the implants are gene therapy delivery devices. The idea of an implant for gene therapy delivery is a problem scientists in the real world are working to solve, and while there’s no medical reason for using the cheek as the site of implantation, there is a location nearby the cheek where the first real-life gene therapy implants are likely to go: the ear.
Deploying Carrier Vectors
Most basic and clinical research in gene therapy uses DNA that is packaged inside carrier particles known as vectors. A vector can be a virus, a liposome (a spherical container similar to the HDL and LDL carriers that transport your “good” and “bad” cholesterol, respectively, in blood), or a variety of structures made of different chemical polymers.
Vectors have tradeoffs that differ depending on the genetic payload and the type of cells targeted. For instance, a type of viral vector called a retrovirus is good for modifying dividing cells, but not useful for diseases where non-dividing cells need to be changed.
With gene therapy today, the most commonly used vector is called the adeno-associated virus (AAV). There are various subtypes of AAV, and each subtype determines which body tissues and organs will receive the treatment. Compared with other viruses, AAV tends not to stimulate the immune system easily, particularly if the treatment is administered just once.
One more advantage of AAV is that it delivers its genetic payload into target cells as an episome – a piece of DNA that utilizes the cell’s machinery to make the needed gene product, but does not insert itself into a chromosome. This minimizes the risk of disrupting other genes, which could kill the cell or transform it into a cancer cell.
AAV can only carry a small genetic payload, however.
By injecting AAV carrying the AADC gene, a relatively small package, into a part of the brain called the putamen, neurosurgeons can restore long-term functions in Parkinson patients. It’s working, because the AADC gene just barely fits inside the AAV.
Things are different with the much larger gene that’s broken in people with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD). In the latter case, advances are on the horizon because of a technology called CRISPR-Cas9, a gene editing system that does fit inside AAV, allowing for correction of the faulty gene that DMD patient’s have. But the research is still in its early stages.
Other gene therapy delivery systems rely as much on physics as they do on chemistry.
A device called a gene gun shoots tiny gold or tungsten spheres coated with the needed DNA into cells. Once inside, the genetic material detaches from the spheres.
Electroporation, using electricity to punch temporary holes in cell membranes to help naked DNA make its way into the cell, is another physical gene therapy tactic. Researchers are also studying ultrasound, hydrodynamic and magnetic methods of delivery.
DNA carries an electromagnetic charge — a negative charge, due to chemical entities called phosphate groups. This enables the molecule to be directed in an electromagnetic field, which in turn opens the possibility of merging genetic and electronic components. That’s a biophysical reality that underlies the maggot-like implants of Orphan Black, but it’s also a gene therapy implant that is emerging in the real world.
You may know someone with a cochlear implant, or you may have one yourself, and so you know that they facilitate the transference of sound waves in the air into nerve signals. But researchers have demonstrated in guinea pigs that a cochlear implant also can be used for electro-injection of DNA molecules into the nerve cells that carry impulses from the cochlea (the hearing component of the inner ear) to the brain.
These nerve cells comprise the cochlear branch of the vestibulocochlear nerve, but their degeneration leads to nerve deafness. Treating the cells with genes that make proteins called neurotrophins regenerates the nerve, so the next step is to develop similar implants for humans.
Testing of such implants has not yet begun on humans, but it may happen within a few years, certainly before you begin seeing Orphan Black style implants sending genetic payload through the body from the cheek.
Whether it’s extreme climate change, an impending asteroid impact, scientific curiosity or even space tourism, there are compelling reasons to think about calling Mars our second home. But before expanding humanity’s cosmic real estate holdings, scientists will need to make the Red Planet feel a little more like our blue marble.
That, in a nutshell, is the goal of researchers thinking about ways to terraform another planet.
Elon Musk, of Tesla and SpaceX fame, has suggested we nuke the polar ice caps on Mars to unlock liquid water and release clouds of CO2 that would thicken the atmosphere and warm the planet. This notion got some press last year when Major League Baseball player and amateur astrophysicist Jose Canseco tweeted: “By my calculations if we nuked the polar ice caps on Mars we would make an ocean of 36 feet deep across the whole planet,” thereby enshrining the idea in our popular imagination. Giant mirrors concentrating sunlight on the poles and smashing an entire moon into Mars also top the list of grandiose proposals to Earth-ify the Red Planet. Read More
The Mars-like deserts of the American Southwest are some of Earth’s most iconic stargazing grounds. Far from pestering city lights and free from regular cloud cover, they provide a starry-skied sanctuary for lovers of the night.
So, it would stand to reason that the deserts of Mars itself would be even more idyllic. After all, there’s no light pollution and cloud cover is hard to come by.
And to some degree, that’s true. It doesn’t get much darker than nighttime on the Red Planet. And Mars’ atmosphere is so weak — just one percent of Earth’s — that the stars don’t twinkle. Read More
The turn of the 21st century was an exciting time in the history of genetics.
The first sequencing of the human genome was completed in 2003 and it provided numerous insights to the scientific community and society in general. In 2000, during his final State of the Union Address, President Bill Clinton made a point of how all humans share 99.9 percent of our genome — it’s actually more like 99.7 percent.
By honing in on the genetic variants, or mutations, that exist for certain genes in the human population, medical geneticists achieved a capability that would have looked like science fiction to physicians of the 1970s. Deciphering the genetics that underlay our existence has so far led to measurable success in gene therapy for certain conditions, but scientists are realizing that genes do not have the final say in what happens to a cell and its owner. Read More
To halt climate change and prevent dangerous warming, we ultimately have to stop pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. While the world is making slow progress on reducing emissions, there are more radical options, such as removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and storing them underground.
In a paper published today in Science my colleagues and I report on a successful trial converting carbon dioxide (CO₂) to rock and storing it underground in Iceland. Although we trialled only a small amount of CO₂, this method has enormous potential. Read More
The seventh row of the periodic table is complete, resplendent with four new names for the elements 113, 115, 117 and 118. The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (the organization charged with naming the elements) has suggested these should be called nihonium (Nh); moscovium (Mv); tennessine (Ts) and oganesson (Og) and is expected to confirm the proposal in November.
The three former elements are named after the regions where they were discovered (and Nihonium references Nihon the Japanese name for Japan). And “oganesson” is named after the Russian-American physicist Yuri Oganessian, who helped discover them. Read More