Jul 20, 2017

Axios Science

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Rush Holt wants you to know evidence isn't just for scientists

Last week, I spoke with AAAS CEO Rush Holt about how science is bumping up against policy and, especially, politics. Holt is a big fan of the physician-poet Lewis Thomas, who once described science as the "shrewdest maneuver" for understanding how the world works.

  • "On any public question, we should all hope that people will think like scientists. They don't have to give up their aesthetics, their poetry, their faith, but on a public question, this shrewd maneuver that Lewis Thomas talks about is the best way of approaching the problem, whatever problem it is."
  • "If the process of science — this precious, valuable, extraordinary thing — is challenged, then scientists should speak up. Scientists should go into the public square if they can shed light on an issue of importance or if the scientific process is challenged."
  • "I would like to get to the point where every citizen, every day, asks their political leaders and policymakers, 'What's the evidence?'"

Read more of my interview here.

Axios stories to spark your brain
  • Swallow this: Harvard researchers have designed a quarter-sized robot that can be wirelessly folded and unfolded, writes Erica Pandey. Their vision: ingestible machines for medical diagnostics or delivering drugs.
  • Rock solid: Eileen Drage O'Reilly on new archaeological evidence that convincingly suggests humans arrived in Australia 5,000 - 20,000 years earlier than previously thought.
  • Cancer genetics: A detailed genetic analysis of the most common form of childhood brain cancer shows its many subtypes. Jeff Nesbit writes that knowing the differences could help to eventually mitigate the side effects of treatment.
  • Elon Musk: He says he has the green light to build a hyperloop from N.Y. to D.C. Meanwhile, the SpaceX founder brought expectations for their new rocket down to Earth yesterday.
What we're reading elsewhere
  • Remembering: Maryam Mirzakhani, the first — and so far, only — woman to win math's prestigious Fields Medal died from breast cancer on Friday at age 40. A lot has been written about her in the past few days. This story from the New Yorker about the day she received the medal rises to the top.
  • Chew on this: Dental anthropologist Peter Ungar in Aeon writes on evolution, diet, and our messed up teeth.
  • Maternal mortality: ProPublica and NPR have spent the last few months trying to learn the stories of the estimated 700-900 women in the U.S. who died last year from complications of pregnancy and childbirth. Maternal mortality is very rare here but the U.S. has the developed world's highest rate.
There's a gender gap in physical activity

Axios' Erica Pandey wrote about the difference between how many steps men and women take on average each day around the world, according to a new study.

Two key findings:

  • In every country studied by the researchers, men logged more daily steps than women. But in certain countries, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, results showed that men walked nearly 40% more than women. The U.S. also had one of the largest gender gaps, with men walking 25% more than women.
  • Women who walked about 1,000 steps per day were more than 3 times as likely to be obese than women who walked about 10,000 steps. Similarly inactive men were about twice as likely to be obese than their active counterparts. The obesity rate was 30% for both men and women who logged around 1,000 daily steps.
Something wondrous

Researchers at MIT have engineered bacteria to sense red, green, and blue light — and then create a picture of what they've "seen," like the arrangement of fruit pictured above, by expressing pigments in those colors.

"At the most fundamental level, we've given E. Coli the ability to detect different kinds of light and then compose an image," says genetic engineer Felix Moser. "It's a demonstration that synthetic biology tools have come a long way in the last decade."

Synthetic biologists designed and custom built new genetic parts for bacterial cells that create: light-detecting proteins, a circuit to navigate and leverage the cell's mechanisms for turning genes on and off, a capacitor of sorts to regulate the energy burden being placed on the cell when it expresses these different proteins, and enzymes that actually produce the pigments.

Then, with the 1970s' finest slide projector technology, they projected an image onto a plate of bacteria and, the next morning, the bacteria had recreated the image they'd "seen."

Beyond bacteria with red-green-blue vision, precisely directed light could conceivably be used to control the production of chemicals or vaccines, essentially turning bacteria into optimized manufacturing facilities.