Science and Technology

Print Your Own Disease-Detecting Microscope for 50 Cents


A bioengineering assistant professor at Stanford University has created a functional paper microscope for only $0.50.

Microscopy technology has not changed much in recent history. According to Manu Prakash, a bioengineering assistant professor at Stanford University, we use the exact same technology for diagnostics today as Mohandas Gandhi did in the 1940s. “Even though [they are] the pinnacle of modern science, research microscopes are not designed for field testing,” Prakash says in a TED Talk for TEDGlobal. “Neither were they first designed for diagnostics at all. They are heavy, bulky, really hard to maintain, and cost a lot of money.”

This realization led to the creation of Foldscope, a completely functional Origami-like microscope that costs less than $0.50 to produce. No bigger than a bookmark but with the ability to magnify samples up to 2,000 times their original size, the device holds within its cardstock frame the same advanced microscopic technology of most research microscopes without the high costs and complex assembly. “I wanted to make the best possible disease-detection instrument that we could almost distribute for free,” Prakash told Scope. “What came out of this project is what we call use-and-throw microscopy.”

The Foldscope weighs less than two nickels, can be built in minutes, and forgoes written instructions for simple, color-coded perforations. It requires no external power, is durable enough to be submerged in water or dropped from a three-story building without damage, and can be incinerated after use for safe disposal of infected slides. Its straightforward design, cheap production cost, and easy application works well in field-based citizen science and educational purposes, and Prakash says he would love for today’s children and tomorrow’s future scientists to be able to “just print out a Foldscope and carry them around in their pockets.”

According to Foldscope’s website, the device is focused on democratizing science and developing tools that can be applied to problems in global health and science education. Prakash and his team are currently offering 10,000 Foldscopes to citizen scientists who apply with the most inspiring and creative potential applications of the paper telescope. The idea is to create a crowd-sourced microscopy manual with data and ideas collected from the participants in the study. “So many times people use a tool for one specific purpose and don’t realize the rich potential for other uses,” Prakash says. “This online manual will inspire further explorations.” Currently, the microscope is capable of being customized to detect specific blood-borne diseases such as malaria, African sleeping sickness, schistosomiasis, and Chagas. Prakash hopes citizens take advantage of the Foldscope's open-source design to develop his invention further.

Photo by Foldscope.

De-Extinction Brings Dead Species Back to Life


With technology reminiscent of Jurassic Park, scientists plan to revive long-extinct species like the passenger pigeon.

The practice of cloning has long been stigmatized. Although the potential benefits have yet to be definitively weighed against the possible ethical repercussions, according to National Geographic, a technology called de-extinction is now within reach.

In the past decade alone, scientific tools and procedures have improved so that the idea of successfully cloning animals has moved from a vague fantasy to a tenable reality. Environmentalist Stewart Brand has been researching the possibility of bringing back the passenger pigeon, a species hunted to extinction in 1914. Ben Novak is a genetics student heading up the passenger pigeon research for environmentalist Stewart Brand’s Revive & Restore organization. “We’re going to build from scratch the code that is a passenger pigeon, one gene at a time, [and] compare it to its closest relative. Then we’re going to introduce DNA into the living cell of a Band-tailed pigeon,” he explains in a video from TIME Magazine. “When you introduce an extinct animal’s egg cell into a new mother, then you’ve changed the game, which has been done.”

Novak is referring to past attempts to clone the Pyrenean ibex. In 2003, Spanish and French reproductive physiologists were able to revive the cells of the extinct goat. The team used the preserved cells of the last ibex, who had died in 1989, to inject nuclei into goat eggs and implant the eggs in surrogate mothers. Few implantations resulted in pregnancies, and most pregnancies ended in miscarriage. However, one birth resulted in a clone of the Pyrenean ibex. The animal was born with respiratory defects and died within ten minutes, a short-lived and bittersweet first success at de-extinction.

Although technology has much improved since 2003, the revival of a once-extinct species is still years away and would only be possible for species that died out within the past couple tens of thousands of years. The events of Jurassic Park will not be relived any time soon. However, with the current advances in biotechnology, both scientists and the public may soon have to question whether bringing back extinct species is a reality they are willing to face. “One of the things we’ve gotten used to is the horrifying realization that extinction is forever,” Brand says. “But what if the new truth is that de-extinction is forever?”

Of course, there are several issues to work past before de-extinction becomes widely accepted. Revived species would be living in an environment vastly different from the one they inhabited before extinction, and the possibility of new diseases rapidly wiping them out is a real possibility. Protestors call the technology an expensive distraction from the more pressing matter of dwindling populations of living species. Since many of these species were killed through human interference and hunting, questions of whether the world is even ready to welcome these species back have been raised.

Supporters of de-extinction counter these reservations with suggestions of increased biological diversity and benefits to medical studies. With further research, the expenses of biotechnology should decrease rapidly. Scientists can research the protection of nearly extinct species while working on de-extinction, and as Church points out, “It’s hard to say in advance what’s distraction and what’s salvation.” As far as the complaints that scientists are attempting to play God or meddle unnecessarily, Novak says, “It was our direct activity that caused that extinction. For me, biotech is the future of conservation, because our meddling is not unnatural. It is what species do.”

Photo by John Goode, licensed under Creative Commons.

Menstrual Man: The Sanitary Pad Movement Sweeping Across India

Menstrual Man is a documentary that details how one dropout-turned-entrepreneur revolutionized menstrual sanitation for women in developing nations.

Arunachalam Muruganantham’s interest in the state of menstrual hygiene in India began in 1998 when he discovered that his wife was using dirty rags in place of sanitary napkins to save money for food. According to the BBC, nearly 70 percent of all reproductive diseases in India are caused by poor menstrual hygiene, and Muruganantham was shocked to discover that the simple cotton pads that could alleviate this problem were selling for 40 times the price that it cost to produce them. “I thought to myself, white substance, made of cotton… oh my God, that guy is just using a penny value of raw material—inside they are selling for pounds, dollars! Why not make a local sanitary pad for my new wife? That’s how all this started,” Muruganantham explained in a Ted Talk in Bangalore.

Muruganantham began creating his own sanitary pads and asked local women for feedback but found they were unwilling or unreliable. He created a wearable contraption that would pump goat blood to stimulate menstruation so he could test the absorption of his napkins himself. “I became the man who wore a sanitary pad,” he says. His village forced him to leave, believing he was possessed by evil spirits, and his wife and mother left him.

Muruganantham’s sanitary pads were not as effective as he had hoped, but he refused to give up. He studied samples sent to him from manufacturing companies and realized he needed a machine to break down blocks of cellulose. He spent the next four years designing a cheap wooden machine that produces sanitary pads in a process that can be learned in an hour. The machines cost between $1,200 and $6,000—much cheaper than the several thousand dollar machines used by big corporations. He built 250 in a year and a half, bringing them to 1,300 villages in the poorest states in Northern India.

The machines are typically bought by self-help groups and NGOs. Each one provides jobs for ten rural women, who produce and sell the sanitary pads for self-determined prices. The simple design of the machines means the women can maintain them locally and operate them with ease. Although he could have patented the machine for profit, Muruganantham offered his design in an open-source format. “I don’t want to make this as a corporate entity. I want to make this as a local sanitary pad movement across the globe,” he explains. “If anyone runs after money, their life will not [have] any beauty. . . . I have accumulated no money but I accumulate a lot of happiness.” With his newfound credibility, Muruganantham’s family returned to him and they were able to rejoin his village.

Muruganantham is planning to send his machines to 106 developing nations across the globe. The documentary Menstrual Man was released last May and is currently available on iTunes, with DVDs forthcoming.

Photo by Amit Virmani.

DNA Barcoding and Citizen Science

DNA barcoding art

Easy enough for kids and amateur scientists to use, you might say DNA barcoding is inherently democratic.

In 2008, I happened to see an intriguing news story about two New York City high school girls who had used a new DNA-based identification method to determine if their neighborhood sushi restaurants were selling mislabeled fish. That was my first encounter with the technique known as DNA barcoding. Since then, I have helped hundreds of amateur scientists use barcoding to question the identity of everything from 'heirloom' oranges to 'beef' meatballs to the diversity of Alaskan plants.

The idea of identifying species through a very short genetic sequence, rather like the manner in which a supermarket barcode identifies products, was first proposed in a 2003 paper by Dr. Paul Hebert, a researcher at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. The beauty of barcoding is that even non-specialists can obtain barcodes from tiny amounts of tissue and conclusively identify a species. Compare this to standard taxonomic identification, which requires intact specimens (often impossible in situations where you want to know the identity of foodstuffs) and an expert able to distinguish subtle anatomical differences between closely-related species using morphological features like the shape and color of the organism's parts. As The New York Times put it in their article about the abovementioned 'SushiGate' kids:

"What may be most impressive about the experiment is the ease with which the students accomplished it. Although the testing technique is at the forefront of research, the fact that anyone can take advantage of it by sending samples off to a laboratory meant the kind of investigative tools once restricted to Ph.D.'s and crime labs can move into the hands of curious diners and amateur scientists everywhere."

Readers of GeneWatch are probably more aware than most of the astounding rate at which DNA science in general is progressing. What they may not know is that there is a growing movement to democratize the technology, to put it into the hands of the public for the greater good. Professional scientists like myself have been inspired to found open, public-serving laboratories that are accessible to anyone who wants to pursue a safe and useful project. Genspace, which I co-founded and direct, is a nonprofit community biolab located in Brooklyn, NY. We provide workspace, access to equipment, and mentorship in the biosciences. Genspace offers adult education courses, free public events such as open barcoding nights, low-cost lab space for inventors, and is a place for students to work on projects for science competitions. One of the best uses of community labs is the kind of DIY investigation that can tell you more about your environment, health, or food. Is that goat cheese made with cow's milk? Bring it in and we'll teach you to barcode it. Want to know if your soy milk is Roundup Ready? We can teach you to determine that too, it's an even simpler protocol than barcoding. We want everyone to become more literate in the biosciences in order to join the discussion about them from a position of knowledge as opposed to forming opinions based on ignorance and fear. And I strongly feel that the best way to learn is hands-on in the lab.

Barcoding is a regular activity at Genspace. It's a great way for amateurs to participate in real science. Although the DNA barcodes of most common species have been deposited into public databases, most of the millions of species on earth have not been barcoded yet. This gives the student or citizen scientist an opportunity to contribute to the growing public database of DNA barcodes. Genspace first began teaching barcoding as part of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory's 2011-2012 Urban Barcode Project, a science competition for high school students. Genspace worked closely with their Harlem DNA Lab and acted as its satellite site in Brooklyn for teacher training and open lab hours to mentor students in barcoding, a relationship that continues today.

Our newest barcoding project focuses on the importance of identifying organisms to help monitor the biological effects of global climate change. Accelerating habitat destruction is particularly evident in the Alaskan landscape, where glaciers recede practically before our eyes and environmentalists attempt to preserve species diversity in the face of opposing economic interests. In Genspace's Alaska Barcode Project, we invite the general public to monthly open nights where we teach them to barcode plant samples collected from remote locations in interior Alaska.  The goal is twofold: to create a baseline survey of plants in particular areas such as the Skolai Valley in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, and to add new identifying barcodes to the Barcode of Life Database to empower future amateur scientists to conduct similar surveys.

Part of the DNA sequence of the chloroplast gene rbcL has been designated as one of the two barcode regions for plants (the matK gene is the other region but is not used at Genspace). Barcoding a specimen starts with extracting its DNA. You only need a small piece, the diameter of a pencil eraser, to get plenty of DNA for barcoding. In a tiny plastic tube, the sample is mixed with a few drops of a solution that disrupts the cellular structure and then ground into a paste using a little plastic pestle. The DNA is then absorbed onto silica, which is washed with salt-containing buffers until all other cellular components are gone. The clean DNA is eluted off the silica with water and the barcoding region amplified using a procedure called polymerase chain reaction (PCR). The amplification is necessary to get enough material in the tube to send out for sequencing.

PCR is a standard lab technique that has become mostly automated. Prepackaged mixtures of enzymes and reaction components such as the PCR primers that target the barcoding region can be bought cheaply in bulk. All one has to do is add a minute quantity of your DNA to the PCR mix and stick it into a preprogrammed machine. What comes out is ready to be sent off for sequencing at a fee-for-service facility doing hundreds of sequencing reactions daily. The total cost for the whole procedure can be less than $20 per sample.

Our barcoding nights have been very popular. They educate people and make them more informed about cutting-edge science. There is also a social component to the project where participants often engage in discussions about the promise and the repercussions of the technology.

It wasn't that long ago that major scientific contributions were made by curious amateurs, and science itself was less of a profession and more of a hobby. The popularity of our barcoding nights might be predictive of the resurgence of such citizen science, where a diverse cross-section of the general population are enthusiastic participants in scientific inquiry. It's empowering to be able to use the latest breakthroughs to answer questions of importance to you. I can think of no better use of my time than to continue to facilitate this empowerment through my work at Genspace. And please do stop by and barcode something if you are in the neighborhood!

Ellen Jorgensen, PhD, is co-founder and President of Genspace, where she spearheads the Urban Barcode Project and other programs. She was an invited speaker at TEDGlobal 2012. Reprinted with permission from GeneWatch (Nov/Dec. 2013), a bimonthly publication of the Council for Responsible Genetics and America's first and only magazine dedicated to monitoring biotechnology's social, ethical, and environmental consequences.

Photo by Col Ford and Natasha de Vere, licensed under Creative Commons.

The Blood Bank's Fishy Solution

arctic cod

Arctic Cod may hold the key to a more efficient method for storing blood.

Maintaining an adequate supply of blood has always been a challenge for hospitals. While refrigeration and freezing can provide a blood bank with reserves, the limited shelf life of blood and the additives used for preservation have made blood storage far from efficient, and reliance on new donors perpetual. But a new study conducted by scientists at the University of Warwick has demonstrated that nature might have a solution.

Summarized by Peter Dunn-Warwick for Futurity and first published in the journal Nature Communications, the study took a closer look at the antifreeze properties of fish that live in sub-freezing waters such as the arctic cod. Scientists isolated the specific proteins that prohibit freezing in fish blood, and were able to mimic the properties of those proteins in a polymer alcohol that can be added to human blood for efficient storage. Matthew Gibson of the University of Warwick summed up the multiple benefits of using polymer alcohol in freezing blood: “Firstly, it reduces the growth of ice crystals during thawing, secondly it reduces the need for organic solvents, and crucially, it reduces the time between defrosting and having transfusion-ready blood by eliminating the need to remove solvent.”

Although further testing is needed, scientists are hopeful that polymer alcohol will not only enhance blood storage techniques, but also bolster treatments for certain cancers and neurological ailments.  

Photo by NOAA Photo Library, licensed under Creative Commons

Mind Over Matter: Using EEG to Improve Focus

 EEG headset

New advancements in EEG technology allow the average consumer to unleash their inner Jedi via headset.

The ability to influence objects with sheer brain power has typically been designated to the realm of science fiction, but new advancements in EEG technology allow the average consumer to gain insight into the inner workings of their mind via headset. EEG, which stands for electroencephalography, is a tool used in neuroscience to pick up patterns in the brain’s electrical activity, such as those that occur while sleeping or during epileptic seizures. EEGs have been used in hospitals to detect epilepsy and monitor the activity caused by other brain conditions, but recent efforts have been made to pair affordable EEG headsets with products such as computer programs, cell phones, toys, and video games in order to develop mental control and relaxation. Many of these products are being offered within an open source model, allowing users to further develop and experiment with EEG technology at home.

Amy Standen of KQED Science reports that NeuroSky’s MindWave Mobile EEG headset costs only around $100 and is powered by a single AAA battery. Paired with the Puzzlebox Orbit Brain-Controlled Helicopter (priced at $89), the headset measures attention levels by requiring users to clear their thoughts and focus their concentration to power the helicopter while infrared signals on the gadget guide its flight. Richard and Erica Warp combined their knowledge of composing and neuroscience to develop another use for EEG headsets, the NeuroDisco computer program. The program composes music based on the brainwaves read from sixteen sensors placed around the scalp—the more focused you are, the more pleasant the notes produced.

This type of instant feedback allows users to understand how the brain influences certain results and subsequently alter their way of thinking to achieve change. As Adam Gazzaley of the University of California-San Francisco tells Standen, EEG programs may even help those diagnosed with ADHD. “Instead of being given a box of pills, they put an EEG cap on and they play a video game that looks at how they pay attention to relevant information, how they ignore information, how they sustain attention, how they deal with multiple tasks,” Gazzaley suggests. Then, devices such as the brain-controlled helicopter could provide an entertaining method of developing focus and mental relaxation. The affordability of EEG headsets will hopefully lead to further innovative uses of its potential and the continuing effort to bring such technology out of the hospital and into the hands of the everyday consumer.

 Photo by David Huerta, licensed under Creative Commons.

Foldable Kayak Offers New Way to Explore the City

oru kayak

The Oru Kayak aims to sustainably and affordably reconnect urbanites with the natural world around them.

The collapsible boat marketed to urbanites is not a new idea. But one California inventor and entrepreneur might have found the perfect combination of efficiency, sustainability, and affordability with his improvement on the collapsible kayak, reports Pat Joseph in the Summer 2013 issue of California.

Inspired by origami, Oru Kayak founder Anton Willis has successfully developed an all- plastic boat that’s fully recyclable, extremely durable, and able to be folded into its carrying case that can be stored in a closet or under the bed. It can withstand the folding/unfolding process up to 20,000 times, but most importantly, it actually works, and has been positioned as the ideal water vehicle for the urban dweller who’s interested in exploring their city’s waterways. And while Willis doesn’t recommend it for the weekend warrior, the Oru Kayak is even durable enough to handle the choppy waters of San Francisco Bay, demonstrating that it’s capable of handling pretty much any scenario an urban boater might come across:

As Joseph explains in his article, the Oru Kayak represents a new breed of collapsible boats as it’s lighter than comparable boats (it’s just about 25 pounds), more compact, and cheaper (the boat alone sells for $1,095). A successful Kickstarter campaign in 2012 got the ball rolling in a big way, proving that there was hungry market for Willis’ idea.

But the physical attributes of the boat only tell part of the story as far as Willis is concerned. From a philosophical perspective, this boat represents another extension of the mission at the heart of every project Willis has taken on; that is, his heartfelt desire to help urban people reconnect with the natural surroundings that are so easy for urbanites to miss or take for granted. His company’s product tester, Roberto Gutierrez, summed up Willis’ drive by saying, “For Anton, it’s not so much about selling stuff; it’s about getting people in boats and exploring the world around them. If selling Oru Kayaks can accomplish that, I think he’s happy.”

Photo of New York City from the Hudson River; courtesy of the Oru Kayak user gallery

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