Editor's Note: The Next List will air a full 30min profile of synthetic biologist Jay Keasling this Sunday, Feb. 10th, at 2:30PM ET (all-new time!) only on CNN.
It's a great time to be working in biotechnology. We are developing powerful new approaches to find cures to diseases, curb climate change and reduce reliance on foreign oil.
Synthetic biology promises to change the world by making biology easier to engineer and enabling solutions to some of the world’s most difficult problems.
At the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), I work with a motivated team of people that is at the forefront of the emerging field of advanced biofuels production. Our mission is to develop scientific breakthroughs to help solve the energy crisis.
Inside our Emeryville laboratories, JBEI researchers use the latest techniques in plant science, molecular biology and chemical engineering to produce affordable, sustainable, carbon-neutral fuels identical to gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.
Traditionally, most of the chemicals we use are produced using chemical synthesis, which is the combination of simple chemicals to form more complex ones. For complicated chemicals like drugs, it might take many chemical steps to produce the final molecule. Some chemicals are too difficult or impractical to produce using chemical synthesis. Due to the difficulty in producing these chemicals, many drugs and other products that could make our lives better are not available.
Since 1992, I’ve been redesigning microbes (like yeast) to be miniature chemical reactors that transform sugars into fuels.
Enzymes can do in one step what might take many steps using synthetic organic chemistry. To engineer a microbe to be a chemical factory, we graft genes from plants and other naturally occurring life forms into the microbe. Once inside the cells, the genes produce enzymes that do the chemistry to transform sugars into chemicals.
One of our first products was a yeast that we engineered to produce the life-saving anti-malarial drug artemisinin. Later this year, anti-malarial drugs bearing the microbially produced artemisinin will begin saving the lives of malaria sufferers throughout the world.
At JBEI, we are focused on making biofuels out of sugars. We have engineered microbes to transform sugars into energy-rich fuels that can directly replace petroleum-derived gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. Because we produce biofuels that have identical properties to petroleum-based fuels, there is no need to replace our cars, trucks or planes to use the fuels.
We are also exploring ways to extract sugar from cellulosic biomass, such as paper waste, trees that have fallen down in the forest, the residue of crops such as corn husks and stalks - everything but the kernel of corn - and non-food plants such as switchgrass.
Because plants grow by fixing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, burning a fuel made from cellulosic biomass does not add extra carbon to the atmosphere, unlike the burning of fossil fuels, which produces carbon emissions. In fact, our diesel reduces greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 80 percent over petroleum-derived diesel. And because we produce the fuels from non-edible cellulosic biomass, production of the fuels does not directly compete with food.
There are many advantages to advanced biofuels. That’s why we're focused on converting biomass to biofuels. I’m passionate about advancing basic science for public benefit. That’s my motivation.
Editor's Note: The Next List will air a full 30min profile of synthetic biologist Jay Keasling this Sunday, Feb. 10th, at 2:30PM ET (all-new time!) only on CNN.
Quotable Jay Keasling: “The carpets, the paint on the walls, the ceiling tiles, we have the potential to produce all of these products from sugar.”
Who is he: Jay Keasling, a pioneer in the burgeoning field of synthetic biology, is engineering microbes – single cell organisms like yeast and E. coli – to produce biofuels, medicines, even cosmetic compounds from simple ingredients like sugar cane and grass.
In addition to teaching bioengineering at UC Berkeley, Jay is CEO of the U.S. Dept of Energy’s Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) in Emeryville, California.
Why you might know him: Keasling’s biggest breakthrough came in 2003 when he and his students reprogrammed yeast to produce a synthetic version of an expensive anti-malarial drug known as artemisinin. Armed with a $42 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, they’ve since perfected this inexpensive and effective replacement drug, providing a royalty-free license for mass production to pharmaceutical giant Sanofi-Aventi. Sanofi will bring it to market in 2013, producing 100 million treatments annually. Malaria kills roughly 1 million people a year, many of them children.
Why he matters: Today Keasling is focusing his efforts on creating a new generation of biofuels. Overseeing a team of 200 researchers at the Joint BioEnergy Institute, his goal is to “engineer microbes to produce fuels that behave exactly the same as petroleum-based fuels.” Ultimately, he believes all petroleum-based products – everything from hard plastics and paints to soda bottles – can be produced from these sugar-fed microbes.
Keasling’s philosophy: “Energy is our biggest industry on the planet. But unless we stop putting carbon into the atmosphere, sea levels are going to continue to rise and it's going to create huge problems."
Something you might not know about him: Keasling's a small town boy made good. He grew up on a fifth generation pig farm in Harvard, Nebraska (pop. 1000) where hard work and family were his focus. He jokes he spent the first 18 years of his life shoveling manure. Today, he may spend his day in a lab coat, but as a single father of two adopted boys, ages nine and 15, family continues to keep him grounded.
Why biofuels matter: Keasling doesn’t think we’ll ever see a day when biofuels cost less than petroleum-based fuels, but they will be cleaner. “We won’t be extracting oil from a foreign country, then hauling it to the U.S., and putting that excess carbon into the atmosphere,” he said. Instead, by producing high performance fuels from sugars, he says we can limit the carbons released into the atmosphere and, as a result, help slow global warming.
By Anton Willis, Special to CNN
To me, boats are about great adventures. Being out on the water - even near a city - has a freedom and magic that’s hard to describe.
But when I first started work on the Oru Kayak, I had no idea how big of an adventure it would be.
Four years ago, I moved into a small San Francisco apartment, and had to put my kayak in storage. At the same time, I read a magazine article on new advances in the art and science of origami. This led to a question that soon became an obsession: what if a boat could fold up like a piece of paper? What if it could go wherever you wanted it to go?
I started folding paper models, and soon switched to full-scale plastic prototypes that I tested in the Bay and elsewhere. I built over twenty versions - first in a friend’s garage, then at Tech Shop in San Francisco. Tech Shop was a revelation: Its tools allowed me to build far better and faster, and the community got me thinking about the future of the Oru Kayak.
I met entrepreneurs who had turned obsessions into livelihoods, and encouraged me to think more about getting the Oru Kayak out into the world.
With the help of a small but committed team, the Oru Kayak launched on Kickstarter late last year. It exceeded our wildest expectations. We raised enough money to launch the business, but even more exciting was learning more about our customers, including kayak commuters in New York, scientists in Alaska, explorers in the Amazon and many other people we’d love to join on a paddling trip.
We’re now about to go into full production. We’re manufacturing Oru Kayaks not in Asia but here in California - something that we’re very proud of. We’re motivated by a shared vision of making the outdoors more accessible and connecting people to nature, even in urban areas.
Scaling up to build more than 500 kayaks in a few months certainly has its share of challenges. But it’s enormously exciting when a weekend passion becomes a grand adventure and takes you in directions you couldn’t have imagined.
My advice: Nurture your passions and let them turn into obsessions. Find a way to work on them that’s tangible and gives you joy, even if you don’t know where it’s all headed. And don’t be shy about sharing your story as you go along. You’ll find help and encouragement all over the place, and you may even find a new community, as I did with Tech Shop.
I'm now doing this with kayakers all over the globe. I’ve always been into making things, but building a community of enthusiastic supporters has been even more exciting than building a cool product.
By Greg Gage, Special to CNN
Our understanding of the brain is rapidly expanding. New tools and technologies coming online allow scientists to probe deeper into the microarchitecture of the circuits of our mind. It is an exciting time to be a neuroscientist, as over the past decade our knowledge has been rapidly growing.
But these discoveries and insights have all been limited to a small, select group of individuals that have dedicated their lives to study neuroscience in graduate school and become postdocs, researchers, and professors. While most everyone is fascinated by the brain, very few get the chance to peer into the world of neurons. Because, until now, there wasn’t a way for amateurs to get involved.
Throughout history, many great contributions to science and mathematics have been made by amateurs. For example, Thomas Bopp, a factory manager and an amateur astronomer co-discovered the great Comet Hale–Bopp of 1997. Amateur mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan made so many important discoveries that India has proposed that his birthday be declared the National Mathematics Day. The reason many amateurs can contribute to these fields in particular, is that the instrumentation is very affordable.
Editor's Note: Jim McKelvey is an engineer, entrepreneur, artist, environmentalist, co-Founder of Square and Third Degree Glass Factory and general partner of Cultivation Capital. He is a man who embraces challenge in many forms. Tune in Sunday, January 6 at 2 P.M. E.T. to watch The Next List's full 30-minute profile on McKelvey.
By Jim McKelvey, Special to CNN
Most glassblowers agree that one man, Lino Tagliapietra, is the best.
Who’s the most skilled programmer? Who’s the most talented singer? Who’s the smartest attorney? Who knows? But in glass, we all agree that this 80-year-old Italian dude is the best in the world. Imagine what you can learn from someone who is undisputedly the best in the world.
I got to study with the “Maestro” at a time when he took only 10 students a year.
During the week I spent with Lino, every student got to ask him one question. It could be anything. Lino always knew the answer.
Your one question was a big deal. Students either asked ultra-complex technical questions or requested that Lino make the glass behave in ways nobody thought possible.
My question was elementary. I asked the world’s best glassblower how to properly center a foot on a bowl.
Editor’s Note: Neri Oxman is a designer, architect, artist and founder of the Mediated Matter group at MIT’s Media Lab. See Oxman's full 30-minute profile this Sunday 2 P.M. E.T. only on CNN.
By Neri Oxman, Special to CNN
In the future we will print 3D bone tissue, grow living breathing chairs and construct buildings by hatching swarms of tiny robots. The future is closer than we think; in fact, versions of it are already present in our midst.
At the core of these visions lies the desire to potentiate our bodies and the things around us with an intelligence that will deepen the relationship between the objects we use and which we inhabit, and our environment: a Material Ecology.
A new model of the world has emerged over the past few decades: the World-as- Organism. This new model inspires a desire to instill intelligence into objects, buildings and cities. It is a model that stands in contrast to the paradigm of the Industrial Revolution, or the World-as-Machine.
While I believe that the new model will eventually become the new paradigm, it coexists for the time being with the old model: our minds are already at home with this new view of the world, but we still employ the building practices and design traditions that we inherited from the industrial era.
For instance, today’s buildings are made up of modular parts and components that are mass-produced and interchangeable. A furniture piece can easily be replaced by a ready-to-assemble kit of parts while a damaged tooth-root or bone can be replaced by the design of a titanium implant.
Editor’s Note: Watch Neri Oxman’s full profile this Sunday on CNN’s “The Next List”
Who: Neri Oxman, designer, architect, artist and founder of Mediated Matter group at MIT’s Media Lab.
Why you might know her: Oxman was named one of the most creative people in design by Fast Company magazine. She is pushing the limits of what it means to erect a building and believes one day soon we'll be able to "print" our buildings using 3-D printers.
Her artistic medium: At MIT’s Media Lab, Oxman experiments with different printable materials – everything from concrete to silk. She’s also repurposed a robotic arm into a 3-D printer. “How can we reinterpret 3-D printing in a way that suggests a new design language?” she wonders. Oxman plays with different gradients in her materials, with a goal of printing, for example, concrete that can go from porous to dense. “That concrete can be many things,” she says. “That concrete can become a transparent window.”
Her design inspiration: Oxman thinks about architecture and design in completely new ways. Her muse for all of it is nature. Take the spider, which generates a different silk for different purposes: building a web, creating trailing routes, capturing their prey, wrapping their eggs. Oxman believes that in a way, spiders are like a multi-material 3-D printer. “One cannot separate the spider web’s form from the way in which it originated,” she says. “Nature doesn’t divide between the architect, the engineer and the construction worker. These are processes we’re interested in and want to explore.”
Why she matters: The traditions of building construction in many ways are very old-fashioned,” says Mohsen Mostafavi, Dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. “The way that Neri has used the 3-D printer proposes … the possibility of a different way of making things. Can we also think about buildings that will be made through a process of 3-D printing – that will make our houses, that will make our cities?”
Oxman as artist: Many of Neri’s “experiments” with 3-D printing and materials are so beautiful they wind up in permanent collections in museums around the world. “I don’t see her work as art – I see her work as architecture and design,” says Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator for Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “You can see her work as art if you look at the object itself, but in truth, it comes from very serious studies and from serious examination of data and figures. What is distilled at the end is an object, that if divorced from all the background, can be considered art. But in truth it’s an experimental study.”
Her roots: Oxman grew up in Haifa, a city in the north of Israel, until she left for the Israeli Army at age 18. Both of her parents are also architects. “I grew up in a modernist house, in a modernist culture. There was a love for modernism everywhere – the furniture, the books, the food, even the cutlery,” she says. “So I learned very early to appreciate the value of design and the value of architecture.”
Something you might not know about her: She's a medical-school dropout. “It was one day, I remember it clearly – it was a hot day in Jerusalem, and I left class and called my father and announced to my parents I was going to leave medical school,” Oxman says. “I don’t think I would have made for a good doctor. It was not meant to be, and it took me a long time to realize that.”
Her life philosophy: “There is a very beautiful expression in the Hebrew language that’s borrowed from spoken Torah… ‘All is predicted and permission is given at any point to change anything,’” she says. “I think I live by this idiom in the sense that there is always a goal there is always something to look forward to in life and my creative search and that goal is there … and when I look at it I know it can change at any point and I give myself permission to completely reconsider it every time I look at it. And that’s a very empowering and invigorating way to live life for me ... that maintains an openness toward anything that I choose to pursue.”
Editor’s Note: Watch a 30-minute profile of Max Little Sunday at 2 p.m. on CNN’s “The Next List.”
By The Next List Staff, CNN
Who: Max Little, applied mathematician and project director of the Parkinson’s Voice Initiative.
Why you might know him: You probably don't, but you should. Little's bold idea is this: What if doctors could detect Parkinson’s Disease simply by the sound of your voice? He’s close to proving just that.
How the sound of your voice could be a test for Parkinsons: The idea sounds wild, but Little says he can determine if a person has Parkinson's simply if a person says "ahhhhhh" into a phone for 10 seconds. You don't have to have symptoms for it to work. Maybe the craziest part: Max isn’t a doctor; he’s a mathematician. The magic of the diagnosis is in the algorithms.
How well this sound-based Parkinson's test works: Right now Max is fine-tuning his algorithms with the “Parkinson’s Voice Initiative." He’s collected over 17,000 voices from all over the world that he’s using to test his algorithms. In a lab, Max can predict Parkinson’s disease 99% of the time. If he can get his technology predict with the same accuracy for cell phone calls, it could revolutionize the way neurologists diagnose and treat Parkinson’s. “A practical future use of this technology could be that a neurologist has a number set up, a person can call into that number," he said. “They leave a voice recording. The algorithms would analyze that voice recording and then a neurologist can get an indication about whether or not they have Parkinson’s and the probability associated with that. And then, of course, they can get back to the patient and follow-up.”
By Julia Lull and Brittany Rivera, Special to CNN
New York (CNN) - In crowded cities like Manhattan where most people work and live in high-rise buildings, there is a desire for green space and fresh air. Rather than create another park above the ground, two designers have proposed the LowLine, what they call “the world’s first underground park.”
The project, founded by Dan Barasch and James Ramsey, would take the old Essex Street Trolley Terminal located on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and convert it into a subterranean playground, complete with sunlight.
After a friend and former MTA employee told Barasch and Ramsey about the amount of unused space underground, they decided to build something that would use the free space in the city, rather than add to the already dense skyline. FULL POST