Axios Science

A yellow flower with its stem sitting in an Erlenmeyer flask.

June 15, 2017

Hello from Los Angeles where we just hosted the first Axios Science event. More on that below, along with experts weighing in on food security, a roundup of top science stories, and, of course, something wondrous.

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How to feed the world

More than 760 million people around the world are hungry, with even more at risk as the planet's population is expected to grow to 9 billion by 2050. At the same time, climate change and related droughts, floods, and epidemics of pest and disease are predicted to challenge our ability to reliably and consistently produce food.

Possible fixes: Lab grown food, plants bred with molecular tools, and a better understanding of the planet's complex ecology hold promise for solving the world's food challenges. Given all of these tools, what is the best way to tackle the fast-coming problems of hunger and food security? Four scientists weighed in:

Axios stories to spark your brain:

  • Proof: First quantum message sent from space.
  • Achoo! A case study of a kid who caught every cold reveals how we fight viruses.
  • Autism link: New research finds fevers during pregnancy may lead to an elevated risk for the disorder.
  • Clean(er) bill of health: China's efforts to clean up its lakes has started to work.

What we're reading elsewhere:

  • Pacific mystery: There's a puzzling bloom of rare sea creatures, National Geographic reports.
  • Is this the end? A prominent paleobiologist takes on the idea that we're in the midst of a mass extinction, via Peter Brannen.
  • Pasteur, the artist: One of his most important discoveries came before he was a scientist, per Joanna Klein.
  • Something for nothing? Science Vs looks at whether artificial sweeteners are truly a sweet deal.

5 big ideas about the brain

Our first Axios Science event focused on what we know — and don't know — about the human brain. Five researchers talked about what we might expect from research and technology to better understand the brain and its connection to human behavior and experience. As USC's Lon Schneider said:

"What's at stake is the prediction and control of human behavior or in medicine, and the prediction, control, and treatment of illness...How we work, function, interact, feel, what we're able to accomplish, and our autonomy."

More key takeaways from the program, which you can watch in full here (start at min. 44):

Eric Siemers from Eli Lilly: Despite decades of R&D, a successful drug for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's is yet to make it to market. People should remain optimistic because of recent advances in our understanding of the pathology of Alzheimer's and because while clinical trials haven't produced an available medicine, they are revealing some effects of drugs.

  • "People should not just be patient. The more people that participate in clinical trials, the faster we'll get to that goal."

Hunter Hoffman from University of Washington: L.A. is the heart of virtual reality development — tens of thousands of people are here this week for the E3 gaming conference, with VR front and center. This technology has other applications, such as being used to alleviate pain for burn patients during treatment.

  • A possible side effect of billions of dollars being invested in VR for gaming and entertainment is that "we're going to see a lot of improvement in the therapy."

Matt Grob from Qualcomm: One of his company's ultimate goals is creating brain-to-brain communication.

  • "We're able to use miniaturization, wireless power, very low power electronics, very modern wireless techniques to make implants and sensors in new ways that weren't possible [before] so this day will come."

Doris Tsao from Caltech: In the past 20 years, major advances in neuroscience have come from tools but there are still some big questions to answer:

  • "We don't understand how the brain is functioning. What we really need is new theories about how large groups of neurons can work together to enable memory, perception, decision-making, and thought."

Something wondrous

Each scale of a butterfly's wing emerges from a single cell. In some, like the Morpho species, tiny nanostructures are formed in the wings and bend light into a particular wavelength. UC Berkeley graduate student Aaron Pomerantz, who took the photo above of a Morpho during a recent trip to Ecuador, is trying to understand the genes underlying these structures that produce iridescent colors or, in other cases, totally transparent wings.