NASA Confirms: “Marijuana Contains “Alien DNA” From Outside Of Our Solar System”

It’s big news, set to shock, amaze, and entertain the world.

 But unfortunately, it’s got nothing to do with extraterrestrial stoners melding with Earth’s plants.

However, since you’re now reading, you’ll almost certainly be interested in this research that looked into the clicking and sharing behaviors of social media users reading content (or not) and then sharing it on social media.

We noticed long ago that many of our followers will happily like, share and offer an opinion on an article – all without ever reading it. We’re not the only ones to notice this. Last April, NPR shared an article on their Facebook page which asked “Why doesn’t America read anymore?”. The joke, of course, is that there was no article. They waited to see if their followers would weigh in with an opinion without clicking the link, and they weren’t disappointed.

We’ve been hoping for a chance to try it ourselves, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. Yackler had some fun with the same article and managed to fool a bunch of people.

A group of computer scientists at Columbia University and the French National Institute looked into a dataset of over 2.8 million online news articles that were shared via Twitter. The study found that up to 59 percent of links shared on Twitter have never actually been clicked by that person’s followers, suggesting that social media users are more into sharing content than actually clicking on and reading it.

“People are more willing to share an article than read it,” the study’s co-author Arnaud Legout said in a statement, Washington Post reports. “This is typical of modern information consumption. People form an opinion based on a summary, or a summary of summaries, without making the effort to go deeper.”

This study looks into the psychology behind what makes people want to share content. Research conducted by The New York Times Customer Insight Grouplooked into what motivates people to share information. Just under half of the people asked in the survey said they share information on social media to inform people and to “enrich” those around them. Conversely, they found 68 percent share to reinforce and project a certain image of themselves – in a sense, to “define” themselves.

In the words of one participant from the study: “I try to share only information that will reinforce the image I’d like to present: thoughtful, reasoned, kind, interested and passionate about certain things.”

It also raises the question of whether online media is just a massive “echo chamber”, where we all just like pages and viewpoints that reinforce our own beliefs and are not interested in information for the sake of information. Even the algorithms of social media sites mean that individuals or pages that you tend to click on, like, or share – which are most often the articles or viewpoints that you agree with – will more frequently turn up on your News Feed.

As a user of online media, you’re probably quite aware of this.

Take a look at any comment on social media pages, including those, of course, on the IFLScience Facebook page. It’s particularly noticeable on the more “emotive” and controversial of subjects; think climate change, GMOs, vaccinations, aliens, and a lot of our articles on marijuana, where the top comments often repeat or question something that is fairly explicitly in the article, but not the headline.

Just this week, our article about capuchins monkeys entering the stone age was met with many of the top comments on the Facebook post pointing out they’ve done this for hundreds of years, despite that being the first thing the article said if you read it. Although from our analytics it’s impossible to see which users did not click through to the article yet shared it, there is fairly often a slightly fine discrepancy between shares and page views which doesn’t quite add up, especially on those buzz subjects.

So, if you are one of the lucky few who managed to click and read this article, we congratulate you! Although we do apologize for the misleading headline. In the meanwhile, have fun sharing the article and seeing who manages to chair a discussion on marijuana genetics, without ever reading it.

Scientists Reveal What the Shape of Your Lips Says About You

Scientists and physiognomists consider the lips to be one of the most important features to pay attention to when trying to determine a person’s character. We express our thoughts verbally and in so doing reveal something of our character and psychological peculiarities.

We at Bright Side have decided to take a closer look at the shape of people’s lips to check just how accurately they reflect an individual’s personality traits.

Large puffy lips

People possessing lips shaped like this were simply made to look after someone. If your lips are like this, then you may have spent a lot of time when you were a child feeding stray kittens or helping at animal shelters and wanting to bring every animal home. You have an innate and strong maternal instinct and a desire to safeguard and protect others. In any stressful situation, you think first of all about other people and only then about yourself. People like this generally make the best parents.

The upper lip is larger than the lower one

A person who has lips like this is, quite simply, a drama queen. They’re emotional, charismatic, love life, and draw attention to themselves. They have a high opinion of themselves and possess the ability to draw others to them. They simply love being the center of attention. The most striking turn of phrase and funniest joke always comes from them.

The lower lip is larger than the upper one

Be honest: you simply weren’t born to do office work. How can a person sit on their butt when there are so many interesting things out there? People with lips like this really know what it means to have fun. You’re vitally in need of an energetic lifestyle, new acquaintances, new places to visit, and new impressions. You’re curious, sociable, and open to everything new. You’re the kind of person who can lead people along with you on the path to new adventures.

Ordinary lips

People with ordinary-looking lips like these are often those with a balanced, common-sense approach to resolving any kind of task placed in front of them. Their strengths lie in their ability to listen to others. They take criticism lightly and treat others’ opinions with respect. Making them mad is practically impossible. But, despite their iron-clad stoicism, they still love to laugh and joke, and the glass is always half full for them.

Thin lips

People with thin lips are, as a rule, often loners. They just like it that way. They’re also self-reliant and can cope with any problem. If you have thin lips, then you’re probably the kind of person who has absolutely no need of company when going to visit a museum or even when going on holiday to distant islands. But, despite your love of solitude, you feel perfectly at home in a group of people. You can quickly find a common language with people, and you value other people for their actions.

An upper lip with a sharp philtrum

This kind of person is 100% creative down to their fingertips. They often end up being talented artists and musicians. They have excellent memories when it comes to recalling faces and names, they maintain contact with everyone they know, and they’re always aware of what’s going on. They’re sociable, strive for self-expression in every form, and almost always achieve good results in their work.

An upper lip with a rounded philtrum

If you have lips like this, you’re probably compassionate, sensitive, and kind. You can become deeply upset by any misfortune, and you always find the time to help others. Helping the less fortunate and caring for the world around you is your calling in life. It’s people like you who make the world go around.

An upper lip without a philtrum

These people are the most responsible and reliable on the planet. “Get it done even if it hurts“ is their motto. They don’t know the meaning of the word ”impossible,” and deadlines don’t worry them. Everything will be done exactly on time. Their loved ones and friends know that they can be relied upon in any situation. They’re they kind of people who simply turn up and solve every outstanding problem in one go.

Small puffy lips

People with lips like this are often coquettish and mischievousTheir main priority in life is their own feelings of comfort. If they don’t look after themselves, then no one will. Upon first getting to know them, these people often seem selfish, but this isn’t the case. They’re compassionate and devoted friends, the kind of people who will come to the aid of others at a moment’s notice. They never put their interests above those of others. But they won’t ever do harm to themselves. Because of this guiding principle, things often work out well for them.

A very thin upper lip

People with these lips possess unparalleled leadership qualities. It’s almost as if fire rather than blood pumps through their veins. They’re good at convincing others, and they know how to stick to their guns. The energy of life itself seems to flow out of them. Their success is guaranteed, whatever happens. However, they often find it difficult to develop romantic relationships, as their main principle in life is to be someone rather than to be withsomeone.



PHYSICISTS LIKE TO share the legend of a professor who asked students how they might determine the height of a building using a barometer.

The story goes on to list some of the ways you might do that. You could drop the barometer from the roof and record the time it takes to hit the ground. Or you could offer the barometer as a bribe to the building manager and ask him the height.

Of course, this isn’t really a story about finding the height of a building, but rather a lesson on finding inventive solutions—the point being that teachers should not discourage students from thinking of new ways to solve a problem. (Even if that does make grading tests trickier.)

But still, the question remains: How would you measure the height of a building using a barometer?

What Is a Barometer?

In short, a barometer measures atmospheric pressure. This pressure changes as weather systems move through an area—storms result in lower barometric pressure. The simplest barometers use mercury and looks something like this:

The tube on the right has a higher mercury level, with a sealed top and a vacuum above the mercury column. The column on the left is open to the atmosphere. Notice the dotted line. In order for the mercury below this line remain in equilibrium, the air pressure pushing down on the left must be equal to the pressure of the mercury pushing down on the right. By measuring the height of the column, you can calculate the atmospheric pressure. In general the pressure in a fluid (like mercury or air) increases with depth and can be calculated as:

In this expression, h is of course the depth of the mercury and g is the gravitational field (with a value of 9.8 N/kg). The ρ represents the density of the fluid. But what if the atmospheric pressure changes? With an increase in pressure, the atmosphere will push down on the open tube and cause the mercury to rise until the two sides of the tube achieve equilibrium.

You usually find mercury in barometers because it has a density of 13,560 kg/m3 which is significantly higher than the density of, say, water (1000 kg/m3). Since normal atmospheric pressure is about 105 N/m2 (or 105 Pascals), you would need a mercury column of 0.76 meters (or 760 mm—a common unit for pressure). Using water would require a column 10 meters tall. That’s just too tall to be practical.

Using a Barometer to Measure Altitude

Now for the fun part. Suppose I use a barometer to measure the atmospheric pressure on the ground floor of a building. As ride the elevator up, the atmospheric pressure decreases. Why? For the same reason the pressure changes with different heights of mercury. Assuming the density of air remains constant (a reasonable assumption, given the small change in altitude), the change in pressure from the ground floor to the roof would correlate to the height of the building. This equation is just like the one to calculate the pressure from the mercury except that it uses the density of air (1.2 kg/m3). Ascending a 30-meter building would see the pressure decrease by 353 N/m2. That represents a tiny fraction of the atmospheric pressure, which explains why you need a highly sensitive barometer. Fortunately, my iPhone has one.

Yes, the iPhone features a built-in barometer. It doesn’t use mercury, though. It uses an electric sensor. I can even record pressure readings. Several iOS apps do this, but I like SensorLog. It seems to work reasonably well.

I recently attended a conference in a building with an elevator. Of course I used my iPhone to calculate the height of the elevator as a function of time using the pressure data:

In order to prevent negative height values, I set the lowest value to zero meters. Also, notice that although the app records data at 100 Hz it doesn’t seem like the pressure values change as fast. This is what produces those steps in the above graph. Unfortunately, this means that it would be difficult to find the acceleration of the elevator. I guess it’s a good thing the iPhone also has an accelerometer in it, right? Perhaps the next step is to use the accelerometer to measure the height. I will save that for a future post.


SEAN SPENCER WAS ready to give up. For two years, since suffering a major panic attack, the entrepreneur had been living under a cloud of depression. Nothing seemed to make it better. He took traditional antidepressants, but they made him “want to die.” Meditation gave him a fleeting sense of relief, but it wasn’t enough to get him through the day. Out of desperation, he finally traveled to a clinic to try a controversial new therapy: ketamine IV infusions.

Ketamine, first synthesized in 1962, has long been used as a clinical anesthetic and animal tranquilizer—but it’s also known as the hallucinogenic club drug Special K. Spencer remembers being afraid of having a bad trip. “The first time I was in this chair I was pretty nervous,” he says. “I certainly didn’t know what to expect.” As a low dosage of ketamine entered his bloodstream through the IV, he reclined back in the leather chair and his anxiety began to fade away.

When used correctly, ketamine is a cheap and effective pain killer. When abused, it can send users into what’s known as a K-hole, an out-of-body experience that’s been described as a kind of mental paralysis. But growing evidence shows that low doses given intravenously may be life-changing for patients with treatment-resistant depression. And dozens of clinics across the nation have embraced this new strategy in the fight against depression, as also reported in Los Angeles Magazine.

At the Ketamine Clinics of Los Angeles, anesthesiologist Steven Mandel has given more than 4,000 infusions over the past four years. “The other antidepressants take weeks to months to have an effect. Ketamine kicks in within hours,” he says. “It works on people that nothing else has worked on.” According to the National Institutes of Health, up to a third of those suffering from depression don’t respond to prescription antidepressants like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors—and people like Spencer, desperate for new options, are seeking out ketamine clinics.

The infusions last 50 to 55 minutes and cause mild hallucinations. But it doesn’t come close to the intensity of the dreaded K-hole. “I don’t think anybody should be afraid of it, Spencer says. “You’re not getting handed pills at a club by somebody. You’re going to a professional and you’re in a space that’s safe.” Mandel monitors his patients throughout the procedure and adjusts the dosage accordingly. “After about five minutes you’re blasting off,” Spencer says. “When you get to the deepest part of it you feel ultimate peace.”

While Spencer says the treatment has been life-changing for him, it doesn’t come cheap. At the Ketamine Clinics of Los Angeles, infusions cost anywhere from $600 to $750 a pop. That’s unaffordable for many patients—so Mandel’s clinic mostly ends up serving professionals from the Los Angeles tech community known as “Silicon Beach.”

Spencer is the cofounder of a successful startup and he’s well aware of his advantages. “Objectively I know that I have a lot to be grateful for, and it seems like somebody looking at my life from the outside would think, ‘What does that guy have to be depressed about?’ but it doesn’t work like that,” Spencer says. “You have to look at your brain almost like an operating system, and if that system crashes it doesn’t matter if you have all the comforts of life. You’re still miserable.”

He isn’t alone. According to a 2015 study, entrepreneurs are twice as likely to suffer from depression. That may be due to a combination of work-related stress and higher rates of diagnosis thanks to better health care access. And it’s often a taboo subject in competitive industries like tech. “If you’re admitting to maybe having anxiety or being depressed, you’re giving the impression that you’re weak,” Spencer says.

Doctors still don’t fully understand how depression works, which makes studying and developing new treatments all the more challenging. “We don’t know how any of these meds work on the brain,” says Mandel. “We know about as much about ketamine as we do about any of the others. We do know that ketamine tends to cause new growth in the brain.”


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While the medical community is still waiting on the results from the first large scale clinical trials, proponents like Mandel are already convinced that the ketamine therapy works on patients with severe depression and suicidality. Out of more than 600 patients, he says he’s seen an improvement in 83 percent of them. And a growing number of studies support claims that ketamine is an effective antidepressant.

But many doctors don’t support the treatment. “The main critique is that it’s been rolled out into clinical usage too soon. There’s so much about the drug that we don’t know in terms of how to use it, who responds to it, what the long term consequences of taking the drug might be,” says Victor Reus, a practicing psychiatrist and professor at the UCSF School of Medicine. “We need to have more, larger, well controlled trials using this drug. We need to follow people over time.”

And there are other concerns. While Ketamine as an anesthetic is FDA approved, using it for depression is not. That means many insurance carriers don’t cover it, limiting its reach to lower income communities. Then there’s the risk of long term dependency on a treatment that some worry may prove to be addictive. “Ketamine is theoretically addictive based on what we see in individuals who are using ketamine recreationally and in street usage,” Reus says.

But talk to patients like Sean Spencer and the concerns melt away. “I hope in the future that it’s more accessible,” Spencer says. “I know people who have been on the brink of suicide and done it and it’s 180 changed their lives.”


AS CARS HERE on Earth begin to drive themselves and robots autonomously roam sidewalks delivering food and nearly running over dogs, over on Mars, the Curiosity rover very much remains a remotely piloted vehicle. That’s part technical restraints, part design: Curiosity is up there to do science, so it must follow the commands of scientists here on Earth.

Still, that doesn’t mean automation can’t lend a hand. Back in May of 2016, NASA began using an autonomous targeting system, called AEGIS, that allows the Curiosity rover’s cameras to automatically detect preferable terrain to sample. Over the next year, the system was able to eyeball and automatically identify suitable rocks with very high accuracy, researchers report today in Science Robotics. That’s big news not just for Curiosity’s science-gathering skills, but for the very idea of autonomy in space.

Here’s the problem with Mars: It’s too far away. It takes as long as 24 minutes to transmit a signal to or from the Curiosity rover—and that’s once a communication window opens up. So it’s not like operators can be sending messages back and forth to the rover all day. Instead, they upload a plan to Curiosity at the start of the day. Then, before it gets dark, the rover stops roving. But because of that delay, it isn’t as if Curiosity can send a picture of where it’s landed and wait for instructions on what rocks to sample. That means it’s wasting valuable science time.

So the AEGIS program helps identify those targets without Curiosity’s human handlers. What they’re after is bedrock—dirt is great and all, but bedrock is ideal because it’s still attached to the planet, stuck in the spot where it was formed. “What that means is that you know something about its context and the setting in which it was created,” says lead system engineer Raymond Francis of NASA, “and maybe even from its relationships to other materials, something about its history.”

And AEGIS loves it some bedrock. The rover begins by snapping an image and running it through computer vision algorithms, which look for contrast. “If you can find a sharp edge that you can close into a loop, you’ve probably found a distinct object,” says Francis. “And usually in these environments on Mars that means that you’ve found a rock or some coherent geological feature.”

Target acquired, the rover’s ChemCam fires a series of laser blasts at the rock and analyzes the composition of the vaporized material. And just like that, the rover has found and studied a Martian rock, all on its own. And it’s seriously accurate: It’s been able to successfully acquire the most desired material 93 percent of the time. And since its deployment, AEGIS has boosted ChemCam measurements by 40 percent.

Which is all the more impressive considering AEGIS is running on Curiosity’s less-than-superpowered computer. That’d be the RAD750 processor running at 133 MHz, using just 16 MB of RAM. “It’s the best computer we’ve got,” says Francis. “So we have to be kind of lightweight and lean and choose efficient algorithms.” (In fairness, the processor is also insanely tough, handling constant bombardment from radiation that would fry a normal chip, so be nice to it.)

Really, though, it’s the scientists on Earth who are the brains of Curiosity, no matter the fancy new algorithms and autonomy. “In general it’s important to remember that this is a science mission and so we’re not trying to replace the science team, we’re trying to give them better tools,” says Francis. “A smarter rover is a more useful tool to them, but it’s still the science team who’s in the driver seat.”

But lessons learned with AEGIS could well inform future space missions of all types. Full autonomy might not be good for a mission like Curiosity’s, but that won’t be the case elsewhere. Think of a mining rover that prospects for valuable minerals on its own. And really, the farther humans push into the solar system, the more indispensable autonomy will be. If you think the communication delay on Mars is bad, imagine trying to talk to a rover on Pluto—4.7 billion miles away to Mars’ 34 million miles.

So, autonomy: great for blasting rocks with lasers, not great for replacing NASA’s highly educated men and women in mission control. Solidarity, fellow humans.


A LOT OF people made the same bad joke on Twitter when Senator John McCain seemed confused during former FBI Director James Comey’s senate testimony last week. “Get John McCain some Prevagen!” The joke makes no sense unless you know what Prevagen is—which you probably don’t, unless you frequently watch one of the major news networks. It’s a nootropic dietary supplement, aka a “smart drug,” mostly marketed to baby boomers on TV as a memory enhancer. “Prevagen is a dietary supplement that has been clinically shown to help with mild memory problems associated with aging,” its marketing materials say.

The thing is, though, there’s no evidence the drug works.

In January of this year, the New York State Attorney General sued the makers of Prevagen for false advertising claims, since there’s no evidence its jellyfish-based formula can help improve memory as it claims. “We sent letters to at least five major networks who were airing these ads,” says Bonnie Patton, director of the consumer watchdog group Truth in Advertising. “And guess what? Prevagen ads are still airing.”

Prevagen is hardly alone. Though it’s targeting the 59-and-older set who watch cable news, Prevagen is just one of many nootropics on the market, each aimed at a different kind of audience. There’s Brain Dust, made by spiritual hippie foodie guru Amanda Chantal Bacon, which targets the Gwyneth Paltrow-admiring Goop set. There’s Qualia, made by a group called Neurohacker Collective, that appears targeted at professionals and emphasizes its scientific approach, and Nootrobox, which offers a whole cocktail of different brain enhancers and a complete guide to biohacking—to name just three. As baby boomers hit the age that memory normally starts to fade, and as Silicon Valley pours money into the biohacking fad, the market for chemical cognitive enhancers like these is booming.

And while demand for such miracle pills is high, the laws about supplement advertising are incredibly lax. “If I were looking for opportunities to make a lot of money while deceiving people, I think going into the brain supplement business would be real high on my list,” says Pieter Cohen of Harvard Medical School, a leading expert in the efficacy and risks of dietary supplements. “You can make a lot of money, do something entirely legal, and you’re good to go.”

Like sports or dietary supplements, these brain supplements are not regulated by the FDA. Almost no research has been done into their exact formulations. And there’s no real oversight of how much of any given ingredient they contain. The potential for deception plagues the supplement industry as a whole, thanks to a 1994 law that classified supplements as food rather than medication. According to a study from 2015, dietary supplements lead to at least 23,000 emergency room visits a year in the US.

“The regulatory framework is all set up for this. You can advertise pills as if they support or improve brain function even if you don’t have one bit of research in humans to demonstrate that’s true,” Cohen says. “The law is pretty much clear: You can say pretty much anything short of saying this is a cure for Alzheimer’s.”

Neurohacking by Another Name

None of this is to say that users don’t think these drugs help them out. The chemicals in these formulations may not have proven cognitive effects, but their presentation clearly is doing something to customers’ brains.

As demand for cognitive enhancers increases, VC money is flooding the market. The supplement industry as a whole brings in $30 million a year, according to Cohen, and Silicon Valley appears to want to get in on it—VC firm Andreesen Horrowitz, for instance, invested $2 million in Nootrobox. All that money could fund research—but more immediately, it buys a slick website, which can do a lot to sell the promise of a brain boost.

Go to Qualia’s website, and you’ll see a neatly organized list of its ingredients, which range from neuro-vitamins to adaptogenic compounds to amino acids. This medicalese lends the pills an air of credibility, as do the links to scientific studies about each ingredient. Really, though, “it’s an over-the-counter supplement that they’ve thrown everything in the kitchen sink at,” says Kimberly Urban, a scientist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, who has studied brain-enhancing medicines.

Also on the list of ingredients in most of these? Caffeine. Part of the reason caffeine is so often found in dietary supplements—weight loss, cognitive, or otherwise—is because you feel it. And when you feel it, you think it’s working. “The same reason that caffeine in weight loss drugs makes you feel that it’s doing something: It wires you up,” says Urban. Many supplements don’t contain enough of any of their given molecules to actually produce an effect, so they rely entirely on the placebo effect to work.

 The overlap with diet pills is what most worries Cohen about the trend of memory supplements. He and his research team have long studied the illegal inclusion of amphetamines or methamphetamines in diet pills. (You thought caffeine made you feel sped up?) Though he hasn’t tested nootropics, he sees no reason to believe companies won’t try to sneak the same tweaked amphetamines into them, compounds which are both incredibly addictive and very hard to test and find.
But even without illegal drugs snuck into the formulations, supplements can be dangerous on their own. Though they are ostensibly made with only natural ingredients, lots of natural things are deadly—and without oversight, you’ll never know exactly how much of each compound you’re getting. You should be especially careful if you are sensitive to caffeine or take other medications, since many of the natural ingredients found in supplements can interact with prescription medications. (Did you know that St. John’s Wort can render oral contraceptives less effective? Me neither! But if you are taking the pill, that’s something you’d want to bear in mind before taking Qualia.)

Most of these nootropics also contain amino acids and plant extracts. Some of these things may be beneficial to the brain, say Cohen and Urban. Urban points to one nootropic listed in Qualia, phosphatidylserine, as something preliminary research has shown interesting results on. On Qualia’s website, under a section of the FAQ headlined “Is Qualia a scam or snake oil?” the company writes this:

Qualia is not a scam. We have a non-proprietary formulation—we publish exactly what’s in our product, with the exact amounts. We publish links to the research that support their safety and efficacy, which includes Phase II & III university and clinical trials, strong quantified self research data, and over 40+ years international research on nootropic stack formulation.

But most of those studies are basic research into individual compounds done in animals or with animal cells in petri dishes. The leap from there to “this specific formulation is helpful to the human brain” is huge. (WIRED reached out to Neurohacker Collective for comment but didn’t hear back before publication.) Neuroscientists are only beginning to understand how memory even functions in the human brain, let alone how a specific compound might affect it. “This is not about science,” says NYU professor of nutrition Marion Nestle. “It’s about wishful thinking.”

Wishing to be smarter, better, more productive is natural. Unfortunately, even as most things in 2017 are available at the click of a button, maintaining brain health is still complicated. Doctors recommend you get a good night’s sleep, limit your caffeine and alcohol consumption, exercise regularly, and keep your brain stimulated. None of that’s as easy as popping a pill, but hey, at least it works.


THE FUTURE OF fuel is green, slimy, and reeks of fish. “Fish smell like fish because fish eat algae,” says Imad Ajjawi, a geneticist at the synbio company Synthetic Genomics in La Jolla, CA that grows those smelly photosynthesizers.

This algae is also fatty, which probably isn’t a word you’d typically associate with the goopy, mucky organism. But scientists like Ajjawi have spent decades dreaming about algae this fat. Because fat is essentially oil, fatty algae could be the world’s most successful fuel crop. Ajjawi and his colleagues spent nearly a decade tweaking an algae genome so it produces more than twice as much fat than wild versions of the same species, and Monday they described their efforts in an article published in Nature Biotechnology.

Algae are similar to plants, in that they need nutrients, carbon dioxide, and sunlight to survive. If you starve them of nutrients—think nitrogen, phosphorous—they start storing energy. Rather than grow and divide, the algae go into a quiescent state and build up fatty lipids. “This is so when they do get their nutrients again, they can rapidly use those lipids to grow and divide,” says Eric Moellering, a biologist, co-author, and colleague of Ajjawi’s at Synthetic Genomics.

Scientists have known about this for decades. In the late 1970s, in response to an oil shortage, the Department of Energy launched its Aquatic Species Program. Originally, the program was focused on using algae to produce hydrogen fuels, but by the mid-1980s its scientists were working on converting the organism’s lipids into fuels like diesel. They found they could trigger fat production by starving the algae of food. The problem with that is, the algae would soon stop growing. The key was the elusive “lipid trigger,” some gene or combination of genes that would promote fat accumulation without sacrificing growth. Alas, the DOE shuttered the Aquatic Species Program in the mid-1990s, partly because it failed to find the lipid trigger.

In 2005, Craig Venter founded Synthetic Genomics as a lab to capitalize on some of his breakthroughs in genome research. One of Venter’s big ambitions for the company would be succeeding where the DOE, and many other companies, had failed: in developing algae capable of producing fuel on an industrial scale. Venter imagined city-sized fields of algae out in the Arizona desert. In 2009, Synthetic Genomics partnered with Exxon Mobil, and the algae project sprung forward.

The project started by collecting algae samples from around the world, to find which species was naturally the best fit. They settled on Nannocholoropsis gaditana, which was already known as a promising industrial candidate. Years passed cataloguing every detail of the organism’s biology. All the while, the team was experimenting, trying to crack the connection between lipids and growth. By 2014, they hadn’t gotten far enough. Venter went back to Exxon and pushed them to reset the program. “We needed to hunker down to the fundamentals and look across the entire genome,” says Rob Brown, the senior director of genome engineering at Synthetic Genomics and leader of this program.

Nannocholoropsis has 9,000 genes. And they sequenced the whole lot, right at that moment of starvation, when the organisms entered their lipid-producing frenzy. Among them, they found 20 lipid trigger candidates. Then they used Crispr-Cas9 to knock out each one individually, and see how that affected the algae’s lipid production and growth. Again and again, their results came up null.

One gene in particular—called ZnCys—gave them very strange results. “We had these template Excel files that we would populate with all the data, which we would convert into charts,” says Ajjawi. Those charts measured how efficient the algae was at converting carbon into lipids. “A normal conversion in wild type algae was about 20 percent, so I had set Y axis to maybe 30 percent,” he says. But when he loaded the data for ZnCys, the chart was blank. “I thought, why is it missing?” But the data wasn’t missing, it was literally off the chart: a 55 percent conversion.There was still a problem, though: Those algae with knocked-out ZnCys genes were stunted. “Lipid production isn’t just a function of yield, it’s how fast the cells grow,” says Ajjawi. Crispr-Cas9 was too blunt a tool. So they turned to another method, called RNA interference. “If you think of Crispr as an on and off switch, RNAi is the dimming function,” says Ajjawi. Using it, they were able to fine tune their mutant algae until they grew at about the same rate as wild algae—but with more than double the lipid production.

ZnCys turned out to be a master regulator, which means it creates proteins that tells other genes when to turn on and off. The DOE’s Aquatic Species Program was just a little too ahead of its time to discover and control this tool. At the time the program shut down, sequencing a single genome still cost millions of dollars, and nobody had figured out how to edit and tweak genes with Crispr-Cas9 or RNAi.

So that’s it, guys. The end of drilling for fossil fuels, and a new age of combustible energy created by organic matter that sucks carbon out of the atmosphere.

Record scratch.

Not so fast. “Before we take this technology outdoors, there are still many questions about how it will perform,” says Ajjawi. For one, taking the algae outdoors will expose it to disease, predators, and other outdoorsy things. Also, they aren’t quite sure how the algae will grow under natural light conditions. And before the algae gets deployed industrially, the EPA will probably want to make sure it meets its environmental regulations.

Finally, this is just one species of algae. “In the long term, people recognize that, just like crops for food, there’s going to need to be more than one crop out there acclimated to different environments,” says Moellering. If algae is really going to be the future of fuel, more of it will need to fatten up.


Protective equipment is seen before a press conference about fentanyl at the headquarters of the Drug Enforcement Agency June 6, 2017 in Arlington, Virginia. The news conference addressed the dangers law enforcement and first responders face when encountering fentanyl.


IN THE UNITED States, heroin and its chemical cousins are getting better and better at killing—especially as waves of potent, toxic synthetic opioids wash over the country. Fentanyl, 50 times more powerful than heroin, is making up a bigger share of the increasing number of overdose deaths. And users aren’t the only ones at risk: Officers and first responders face hidden dangers of opioids, too.

Last month, an Ohio cop accidentally overdosed when he brushed a small amount of the synthetic derivative powder carfentanil off his shirt; he had just searched a vehicle where dealers had dumped drugs on the carpet. A Maryland officer got sick when he opened a nightstand drawer in a drug den and came in contact with a mixture of heroin, fentanyl, and other compounds, and a Connecticut SWAT team fell ill after a flash-bang grenade stirred up fentanyl-laced dust in a drug dealer’s home. Some police departments now carry first aid kits for drug-sniffing dogs that are getting poisoned by the drugs.

As more law enforcement officers come in contact with synthetic opioids, they’re running into a big problem: They can’t tell exactly what chemical they’re dealing with, and therefore how to protect themselves. The century-old method that police use to identify white powder substances—adding a few drops of liquid acid reagent to turn heroin purple or cocaine orange-yellow—doesn’t work with fentanyl. “If there is a small amount of fentanyl on its own it turns orange,” says Jennifer Verkouteren, an analyst at the National Institutes of Standards and Technology. “But when mixed with heroin you can’t tell.” That means detectives can’t tell the difference between a bag of heroin and one containing fentanyl, or one of its analogs like carefentanil, a horse tranquilizer (100 times more powerful than fentanyl), according to the DEA.

Which is why scientists are developing new ways to test for fentanyl without ever touching it. In their laboratory just outside of Washington, DC, Verkouteren and research chemist Edward Sisco created two methods to identify the white powdered drug—though not before some careful education. “First we had to go through a complicated safety review to make sure we didn’t kill ourselves,” says Verkouteren.

The first method, called thermal desorption direct analysis in real time mass spectrometry (TD-DART-MS), relies on a $35,000 device around the size of a washing machine. Like devices at the airport used to detect explosive residues, the process starts with a swab of the chemical. Heating the swab converts the chemical to a gas, and the system applies an electric charge to see how long it takes for the charged particle to drift in a field. That lets scientists detect the size and shape of the molecule, which is compared to a reference library of drug compounds. The machine can detect fentanyl at a concentration of just 0.1 percent.

As the group acknowledges in a recent paper in the journal Forensic Chemistry, that device is too big to ride along with police pulling over dealers or busting into drug dens. That’s where a second method, ion mobility spectrometry (IMS), comes in. This microwave-sized device, which also starts with a swab, can detect as little as 0.2 percent fentanyl.

  • What it can’t do is pick up every new fentanyl analog that floods the market, constantly cooked up by Breaking Bad-style chemists in China and Mexico. (On Monday, Chinese officials made four new analogs illegal—including a stronger variant known as “Pink” or U-4770. ) “In some cases, we couldn’t differentiate,” says Jessica Staymates, a research chemist at NIST. “They are similar enough that we couldn’t tell that they were a or b.”

So the bulkier DART-MS machine—which can figure out a powder’s exact chemical fingerprint—should be most useful for screeners at the postal service, airport, or prison, helping law enforcement officials keep up with the influx of new drugs. “The limitation is whether the police agencies can afford this equipment, compared to what they are doing now which is colormetric tests,” Verkouteren says.

The next step is miniaturizing DART-MS so police can pack it into their vehicle. NIST researchers are also developing devices that can detect minute particles of chemicals in a room; they could mount it on a small robot and drive it into a drug den. Yet another idea is to use either lasers or small puffs of air to kick drug particles off a subject’s clothing or skin and pull them into a mass spectrometry analyzer like DART-MS, explains Greg Gillen, group leader of the surface and trace screening group at NIST. The team is still working on the best way to separate any potential narcotic compounds from other sorts of stuff that may get kicked up as well, as well as chemical fumes or residues in the air.

That kind of non-contact screening, which you might remember from the first Total Recall is still down the road, but still in the sights of engineers and scientists at NIST. “There’s a big interest in going to better detectors,” Gillen says. “They provide more fidelity and fewer false alarms.”

Until then, cops and their dogs just have to stay be super careful when chasing fentanyl dealers, says DEA spokesman Melvin Patterson. “In the past, after you made a seizure it was easy to perform a field test and go about your business,” he says. “We can’t do that if we suspect there is fentanyl because you put so many people at risk. What the fix is we are not quite sure. Right now, it’s to take precaution.”

That warning hasn’t come soon enough for some police. Last week during a routine traffic stop, patrolman David Suckling of Alexandria, NH, found a vial of white powder in the driver’s purse. He opened it. Wind blew the powder into his face and hair, making him sick and triggering a hazmat response at the nearby hospital when he arrived. Lab tests revealed he was exposed to fentanyl. Suckling has recovered and is back to work. But the next time you get pulled over for speeding, don’t be surprised if you see the officer wearing a dust mask and purple nitrile gloves.


DO ME A favor and picture a pasture dotted with a herd of grazing cows. Some stand and stare at you with that patented cow stare, others bury their heads in the green, green grass, while still others have laid down for a rest. Tranquil, right? About as simple as life gets?

Well, I’m sorry to say that your idea of the herd life may be a lie. Because a new mathematical model posits that while they don’t look it, cow herds may be extremely dynamic, secretly contentious gatherings of warring interests. Yes, with the help of a biologist, mathematicians calculated the fascinating dynamics of cow herds, and yes, they reported it today in a journal called Chaos.

A cow’s life is rife with conflict, thanks to a blend of ecology and biology. Think of a cow as existing in three states: moseying around feeding on grass, standing there staring, and lying down resting. All totally doable at the creature’s own leisure—if it’s alone. But that’s not how cows roll. They congregate in herds as an anti-predator measure.

Now, inevitably in a given herd you’ll find cows of all different sizes. Males tend to be larger than females, for instance, and youngsters of course need to feed less than the olds. So smaller cows will finish eating first and digest more quickly, then want to move along. “There’s sort of a tension between the cows’ own needs and their group needs,” says Erik Bollt, study co-author and director of the Clarkson Center for Complex Systems Science.

  • What Bollt and his colleagues were able to model is how this push and pull plays out. Large herds tend to split into two groups: faster and slower eaters. But they’ll also get some individuals skipping between the groups as they confront the tension between their desire to eat at a certain pace and their need to stay safe within the crowd. “You’ll find those who aren’t terribly happy either way,” says Bollt.

What’s so intriguing here is that the researchers didn’t send some poor grad student out into a field to look at cows for months on end. They did it mathematically, building on their earlier work that modeled how a cow moves between its various states. For instance, when it feels satiated and lies down for a rest. “So what was unique about the model is it modeled them as kind of like capacitors, their need to build until it saturates and then it fires into the next state,” says Bollt. “Think of it like a bouncing ball—it flies and then it hits the ground and boom it switches states and then it does something else.” This new study scales that up to explore how multiple cows with their multiple states interact to create crowd dynamics—the so-called emergent properties of cow biology.

“The nice thing about theory is that it’s less costly than experiments and observations in multiple ways,” says study co-author Mason Porter, a mathematician at UCLA. “Less costly literally in terms of money, but also in terms of what types of experiments are even reasonable to do with animals. There’s no ethical issue with studying cows on a computer.” Obviously models can’t tell you everything about the real world, but the math can inform what real-world experiments you might want to really invest in.

Welcome to the burgeoning field of complex systems science. The definition of which is … well, complex. “My favorite definition, by the way,” says Porter, “is the one that follows the US Supreme Court decision on pornography, where you just substitute the words complex systems instead of pornography.” (That would be the “I know it when I see it” model of defining things.) Basically, for our purposes with the cows, the complex system is a bunch of individuals producing the emergent behavior of the herd. It is what a middle manager might call—dare I say it—synergy.

More and more, researchers are able to tackle the monumental amounts of information stored in an ecosystem—how a starling murmuration workshow bacteria swirlhow fish swarm. That’s the beginning. Complex systems science will help guide scientists into modeling ever more complicated interactions than flocks of birds or herds of hungry cattle. Think not just species, but the interaction of species on grander scales.

For now, though, appreciate the cow. It’s got a lot on its mind.



Although plastic has long been considered indestructible, some scientists say toxic chemicals from decomposing plastics may be leaching into the sea and harming marine ecosystems.

Contrary to the commonly held belief that plastic takes 500 to 1,000 years to decompose, researchers now report that some types of plastic begin to break down in the ocean within one year, releasing potentially toxic bisphenol A (BPA) and other chemicals into the water.

“Plastics in daily use are generally assumed to be quite stable,” chemist Katsuhiko Saido of Nihon University in Japan said in a press release. “We found that plastic in the ocean actually decomposes as it is exposed to the rain and sun and other environmental conditions, giving rise to yet another source of global contamination that will continue into the future.” Saido presented the work Wednesday at the American Chemical Society meeting in Washington, D.C.

Several noxious plastic byproducts, including BPA and a substance called styrene trimer, have been detected in small quantities in the ocean, but Saido says this is the first time anyone has shown a direct connection between decomposing plastic and the hazardous chemicals. Both BPA and components of styrene trimer have been shown to disrupt hormone function and cause reproductive problems in animals.

 The Japanese researchers devised a method to simulate the breakdown of a hard plastic called polystyrene at 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) in the lab, and they compared the chemical byproducts from their experiment with what they found in water and sand from the Pacific Ocean. Based on the speed of plastic decomposition and the amount of drift plastic found along the coasts of Japan, the scientists concluded that noxious chemicals in the water are probably coming from the breakdown of polystyrene, which is used to make Styrofoam.
 But not all researchers are convinced the lab experiment accurately reflects what’s going on in the ocean. “Polystyrene is actually heavier than seawater, so before it ever chemically breaks down or degrades, it may be sinking to the bottom,” said ocean researcher Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, who was not involved in the study. Because temperatures are much lower at the bottom of the ocean and there’s very little light to cause photodegredation, Moore said it’s unlikely that the plastic would break down once it sunk.

“Food doesn’t even biodegrade at the bottom of the ocean,” he said. “There is so little activity going on down there.” In addition, Moore said ocean temperatures across most of the world are much lower than the 30 degrees Celsius the researchers used in their lab simulation.

Even if polystyrene breaks down in some regions of the ocean, pollution expert Joel Baker of the University of Washington questions whether the amount of chemicals released would be significant compared to the vast size of the ocean itself. “There’s a little bit of hyperbole going on here,” Baker said. “There’s no question that there’s too much plastic in the ocean, and we should try to reduce that. But whether it’s an important source of chemicals for the ocean is much less clear.”

But regardless of whether its chemicals leach into the water, the sheer volume of plastic floating in the sea makes it a major polluter, Moore said. Discarded plastic junk makes its way from gutters and storm drains into rivers and streams, and eventually flows into the ocean, where it gets trapped by currents and creates vast regions of plastic soup. On a voyage back from Hawaii in 1997, Moore discovered a floating island of garbage larger than the state of Texas, which has since been dubbed “The Great Garbage Patch.”

Plastic poses the biggest threat to marine animals that confuse garbage with dinner and end up digesting large quantities of polystyrene. Even if polystyrene isn’t decomposing in the water, Moore said it could be breaking down in the digestive tracts of fish and marine mammals. “Every size of organism,” he said, “every creature in the food web in the ocean, from the smallest filter feeders to the largest whales, is consuming plastic.”