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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A startup is employing machine learning to identify what it calls the "dark matter of nutrition."

Why it matters: More than 99% of phytonutrients — the natural chemicals produced by plants — are unknown to science. If we can illuminate that dark matter, we can identify and cultivate compounds in foods for specific health value.

How it works: The startup Brightseed uses a proprietary AI platform called Forager to predict the likelihood that plants will have useful natural compounds and the likelihood that those phytonutrients will have specific health benefits.

  • The platform is trained on a vast library of biomedical and plant research. That allows the AI to make connections between plant ingredients and health effects far faster than any human scientist could alone.
  • "It effectively works as a Google search engine for these compounds and what they can do," says Jim Flatt, Brightseed's CEO. "Once we've found those compounds, we can develop products and services around them."

Details: The Forager system can screen by specific chemical compound, or by health benefit, searching for ingredients that might affect cholesterol or cognitive function.

  • Earlier this year Brightseed announced a partnership with Danone North America to use the Forager system on soy.
  • It's a sign that even one of the most heavily used plants on Earth may have additional nutritional secrets that AI can help tease out.

What they're saying: "AI allows us to tackle things that would have taken far too long in the past computationally," says Flatt.

The bottom line: As exciting as the possibility of using biotechnology to synthesize entirely new compounds is, we've only begun to understand what already exists in the world — and AI can accelerate those discoveries.

Go deeper

Bryan Walsh, author of Future
Nov 14, 2020 - Technology

AI talent appears open to working on defense — with caveats

An aerial view of the Pentagon. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call, Inc. via Getty Images

A new survey offers some evidence that most artificial intelligence experts are positive or neutral when it comes to working with the Pentagon on AI-enabled projects.

Why it matters: Employee concerns have led some tech companies to pull back from working on defense-related projects in the past, but for many in the AI world, the chance to work on intellectually challenging projects — and the Pentagon's not insignificant budget — seems too good to pass up.

CDC: Vaccinated people in COVID hotspots should resume wearing masks

CDC director Rochelle Walensky and top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci at a Senate HELP committee hearing. Photo: J. Scott Applewhite-Pool/Getty Images

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued updated guidance on Tuesday recommending that vaccinated people wear masks in indoor, public settings if they are in parts of the U.S. with substantial to high transmission, among other circumstances.

Why it matters: The guidance, a reversal from recommendations made two months ago, comes as the Delta variant continues to drive up case rates across the country. Millions of people in the U.S. — either by choice or who are ineligible — remain unvaccinated and at risk of serious infection.

Scoop: 50,000 migrants released; few report to ICE

A law enforcement officer walks to meet migrants crossed the Rio Grande River illegally last month. Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

About 50,000 migrants who crossed the southern border illegally have now been released in the United States without a court date. Although they are told to report to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement office instead, just 13% have shown up so far, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: The sizable numbers are a sign of just how overwhelmed some sectors of the U.S.-Mexico border continue to be: A single stretch covering the Rio Grande Valley had 20,000 apprehensions in a week. The figures also show the shortcomings of recent emergency decisions to release migrants.