Engineering better food ingredients

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Researcher TODD KUIKEN is promoting informed
policy-making for the emerging food products being produced by synthetic biology processes.

Todd Kuiken
Todd Kuiken

Walk down any baking aisle at the grocery store, and you’ll notice two types of vanilla on the shelf. The one with the higher price tag is vanilla extract, made from the seedpods of the vanilla orchid, which grows in the shade in tropical areas like Madagascar and Indonesia. The other “vanilla” is a much lower-priced flavoring made from a chemical compound called vanillin, using a chemical process with petroleum as the base.

Unless we are eating directly from a local farmer, we don’t have a good understanding of what’s in our food.” —Todd Kuiken

And that’s just the start of a wave of new “synbio” food products, predicts Kuiken, whose program at the Wilson Center aims to inform public and policy discourse on synthetic biology. He envisions synbio increasingly being used to make food flavorings and key perfume ingredients that, like vanilla or saffron, are very high in value and difficult to grow or produce.

Synthetic biology uses tools like computers, DNA sequencing and chemicals to design organisms that do new things. The fermentation process that results in the new synbio vanillin, made by the Swiss company Evolva and sold almost exclusively as an ingredient to food companies, is just one method of synthetic biology; others more closely resemble breeding.

“Basically they [Evolva] are able to use yeast as the production factory,” says Kuiken, who adds that the synbio fermentation process is less energy intensive than using petro-chemical methods to make flavorings. Evolva also claims that this process allows the flavor profile of vanilla in foods to be controlled more precisely.

Stirring up trouble?

Research by the Wilson Center in 2013 and 2014 found that consumers generally have positive associations with synbio for medical applications, biofuels production and cleaning up the environment but they express concern over the creation of food additives.

Kuiken says he thinks there will be an initial backlash against synbio vanillin from some consumers because of the genetic engineering component used in the fermentation process. Friends of the Earth, for example, already has stated that it opposes synbio vanillin and has asked companies like Haagen-Dazs not to buy it. But clear labeling and better communications that explain all the chemical components of food ingredients, whether they’re produced from petro-chemicals or GMOs (genetically modified organisms) or via synbio, could help educate consumers on the array of ingredients in their food, says Kuiken: “Let’s be honest. Most people have no idea what’s in their food, much less where flavorings come from, which are mostly from chemicals.”

Opponents contend that synbio vanillin could hurt vanilla farmers because the synbio vanillin could be used in place of vanilla extract, and that vanilla farming protects tropical rainforests from expansion by soy, palm oil and sugar cane producers.

Kuiken, however, says he doesn’t “understand how [synbio vanilla] impacts a natural vanilla farmer at all. But I certainly understand the anxiety of a vanilla farmer. I think this needs to be researched further to fully understand the impacts,” he adds. Evolva, meanwhile, has stated that its target is the artificial vanilla market, which accounts for 99 percent of the global vanilla flavoring market.

Natural reactions

The use of synthetic biology in food products also raises issues with using the word “natural” on product labeling, says Kuiken.

“The word ‘natural’ is completely diluted in product labeling. People see the word ‘natural’ and think, oh it came directly from a plant. But that’s not true,” he says. “For ‘natural,’ there’s no clear definition, and the vanilla flavoring made from the GM yeast-produced vanillin could potentially be called ‘natural’” because yeast fermentation is a natural process, he adds.

Unlike GMO corn or soybeans, where the whole plant is genetically modified, in this case the synbio product is produced using a genetically modified organism; the final product is an extract and not the modified organism. So far, government regulators have not addressed labeling for synbio foods.

Kuiken says he thinks the emerging synbio flavorings market ultimately will prompt change in the long-contested “natural” food-labeling category because unlike the “organic” label, which is subject to more government regulations, the “natural” label has become meaningless, he believes.

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Engineering the future

As genetic engineering of flavorings becomes more common, Kuiken says researchers will need to analyze the socio-environmental cost-benefit of bio-produced vanillin from sugar cane feedstock vs. conventionally produced flavoring made from petroleum. Companies could claim that flavoring produced by synthetic biology is a “greener” process because it doesn’t use petroleum. Yet yeast requires sugar as the feedstock, and Kuiken wonders what environmental, social, economic and land use changes would result from the switch from petroleum to yeast.

On a personal level, the technology of synbio flavorings is what interests Kuiken the most, he says. “Someone has figured out how to get yeast to spit out a chemical. It is interesting to think about that age-old question, do we know what is in the foods we are eating? Does it have chemical preservatives? GMOs?” he adds. “Unless we are eating directly from a local farmer, we don’t have a good understanding of what’s in our food.”

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College Students Help Create the Robots of the Future

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In the future, teams on the ground will be able to telerobotically repair and refuel spacecraft and change their orbits. At least, that’s what employees of the Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, are working toward.

Inspired by astronaut servicing of Hubble Space Telescope, the team is creating a robot system that could autonomously capture and then service a spacecraft. Not an easy feat.

NASA Goddard Robotic Demonstration and Test Manager Brian Roberts tapped into academic resources across the country to help solve some of the challenges. He recruited professors and students from several universities, including University of Maryland, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Johns Hopkins University and Case Western Reserve University.

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“We’ve kind of picked the unique skill sets that they have and said, for example, here are the challenges we’re having with cutting [an insulating] blanket on a satellite in space. Look at techniques we can use to make that easier,” Roberts said.

Satellite servicing robots must be able to cut through foil insulating blankets to access and repair or replace instruments inside the spacecraft. Lack of gravity complicates the process because blankets begin to move as soon as they are cut, obstructing the process, Roberts said. Professors and students at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, found a solution using delicate robotic technology they previously developed for surgical procedures. The satellite servicing team is evaluating this technique in their proposed flight system for the robots.

Each university team plays a similar role.

The largest cadre of students comes from West Virginia University in Morgantown, which joined the project in 2010. Currently, about two dozen undergraduate and graduate students work on campus and at the West Virginia Robotic Technology Center (WVRTC) in Fairmont alongside professors and a full-time staff of engineers. They work hand-in-hand with Goddard, tackling some of the toughest challenges.

One of the challenges is that engineers sometimes do not design space robot arms to function on the ground. Their motors cannot lift them against Earth gravity, making development and testing with these machines nearly impossible.

The teams substituted industrial robots, such as those used to assemble cars. Their larger motors easily lift their weight against Earth gravity, but the assembly line automatons are not a perfect stand-in. Their industrial joints move more stiffly and they exert more force than space robots. Engineers bolted the largest robots into four tons of metal to stabilize them, but they still rock the building at full force.

Goddard and WVRTC co-develop software both to make the automatons simulate their space cousin’s more delicate actions, and to perform servicing-related tasks.

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One of the biggest challenges in a potential servicing mission is capturing the client satellite. Having humans on the ground control the robotic capture of a spacecraft is incredibly difficult and risky, in part due to a communication delay of a few seconds as signals travel from the spacecraft to the ground. It doesn’t sound like much, but those few seconds can mean the difference between capturing a spacecraft and flying past a moving target. NASA engineers are therefore working on software and technologies that would empower the robot servicer to perform an autonomous capture.  The industrial robots at Goddard and WVRTC help the engineers practice and hone these technologies.

Oculus Kickstarter, the Rift: Talk about Virtual Reality

The Rift delivers on the dream of consumer VR with compelling content, a full ecosystem, and a fully-integrated hardware/software tech stack designed specifically for virtual reality. It’s a system designed by a team of extremely passionate gamers, developers, and engineers to reimagine what gaming can be.

The Oculus Rift builds on the presence, immersion, and comfort of the Crescent Bay prototype with an improved tracking system that supports both seated and standing experiences, as well as a highly refined industrial design, and updated ergonomics for a more natural fit.

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Since not everyone has eyes that are the same distance apart, the final Oculus Rift will let you adjust the IPD (interpupillary distance) of the optics. There’s a little slider underneath the headset that lets you control the distance between the lenses.

Inside, there are a pair of low persistence OLED screens, one for each eye. “There’s no motion blur, no judder, no pixels,” says Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe. “It feels just like you’ve put on a pair of glasses.” The entire optics display is removable, too—allowing you to install a pair of lesnes that better fit your face (I have an enormous nose, for instance) or have more room for a pair of spectacles. Neat!

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Beats x MCM Pill Dude Speaker Set

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Get to enjoy power packed sound quality from the Pill Dude character by purchasing one of these Beats x MCM Pill Dude Speaker Sets. The character has been provided with a custom MCM trademark on its shoes and also carries a custom Mini MCM backpack. This speaker is portable and lightweight so that you can use it to make your outdoor parties more fun and enriched with high-quality music. It will easily fit in your bag or backpack when you’re traveling outdoors. You can sync two of these speakers together by simply tapping them in order to make your music experience even better. One single charge will give you up to seven hours of battery life with the ability to recharge it anywhere by using your Mac’s USB port to any outlet. A fun filled speaker for your musical hours.

Apple OS X El Capitan

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Apple kicked off its keynote by announcing the latest version of Mac OS X. Dubbed “El Capitan” – named after a rock formation in Yosemite National Park – it brings a new slew of features and performance improvements.

A new addition that will be see many users rejoice will be Split View – allowing you to neatly have two applications side-by-side when they are in full screen mode. You can also create new desktops and split view screens by dragging the application to the Spaces Bar in Mission Control.

Also demoed on stage by Senior VP Craig Federighi was Spotlight. It now can process more natural language queries and you can now search in more places to get more useful results, including the weather in a specific city.

Other additions include Mail gets new gesture shortcuts and tabs; while Safari adds pinned tabs – a feature that has already existed on its rival browsers – and has the ability to mute any background audio right from the address bar.

Search results from more sources.

Spotlight now searches even more places to give you more useful results. Check up on the latest stock prices, weather conditions and forecasts for your current location or cities around the world, and sports scores, schedules, standings, and athlete information. You can even search for web videos.

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In terms of performance, Apple claims that it makes “all kinds of things run fast”. It claims applications will load 1.4x faster than Yosemite, switching between apps is now 2x as fast, while opening a PDF in Preview is 4x faster.

In the graphics area, El Capitan will bring Metal graphics rendering engine from iOS to the Mac. This will give developers near-direct access to the GPU and provide up to 50 percent faster rendering performance. Apple says that it will be great for games, showcasing a game from Epic Games and announcing several game studios and developers will be integrating it into their applications (like AutoDesk and Blizzard).

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It will come out in sometime in Spring this year for free worldwide. A developer beta will be available today, with a public beta sometime sometime in the next few months.

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Terminator Genisys: Arnie Is Back

When you watched Salvation, it was evident that the logic of the series had become torturous, with the universe full of killer robots, shapeshifting liquid robots, liquid robots that also carry weapons, and finally giant robots that fire smaller robots. It was getting impossible to see how the franchise would continue post Terminator Salvation.

The creators found a relatively simple fix – the reboot. Star Trek did it, Spider-Man keeps doing it, Planet of the Apes did it, and so did Total Recall, Judge Dredd, and Robocop. Terminator Genisys resets the franchise’s timelines, and starts off with Skynet sending a T-800 Terminator back in time to kill Sarah Connor. The human resistance fighters take over the compound right after this, and John Connor sends Kyle Reese back to 1984, faithfully recreating the start of the 1984 film.

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Only, things don’t go as expected. There’s a liquid metal T-1000 (the killer Terminator from the second movie) waiting for Reese (a CGI version of a young Schwarzenegger; there’s a certain symmetry in using a computer generated terminator to play the part of a robotic terminator) when he emerges in 1984, which tries to kill him as soon as he gets back in time. And it nearly succeeds too, but Sarah saves Kyle at the last minute, driving an armoured truck into the T-1000, and then she turns to Kyle and shouts, “Come with me if you want to survive!”

That scene right there is pretty emblematic of all the problems with Genisys. For one thing, it’s a movie that spends far too much time trying to remind you about all the things that made Terminator and Terminator 2 great.

terminator_sarah.jpgThen there’s the fact that Sarah was able to find Kyle at all – sure, she could know the location of the alley he arrived in (though even that feels contrived), but after showing up, he’s been on the run from the T-1000, running and climbing into buildings. Not only does she manage to find the specific building Kyle is in, but arrives at the exact spot where he is, perfectly in time to save him.

Terminator and Terminator 2 both had their share of impossible coincidences too – what action movie doesn’t? – but they weren’t as painfully contrived as this film.

And then there’s Sarah Connor herself. Emilia Clarke is a fine actress, and her eyebrows moves more than Schwarzenegger’s entire face, but while she’s fine in Game of Thrones, here, she’s clearly miscast. For one thing, she keeps trying to do an American accent, but it comes and goes throughout the movie. Then there’s the fact that she’s trained to over-enunciate on Game of Thrones; she’s spitting out every word, and it just gets ridiculous after a point. Her Game of Thrones colleague Lena Headey did a much better job as Sarah Connor in the TV sequel to the films, The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

The only good thing about Terminator Genisys is Schwarzenegger. Right at the start of the movie, he fights the young T-800 sent to kill Sarah Connor in 1984, and takes a beating. He still wins, because he’s playing it smart and has brought backup, but we quickly learn that the skin the T-800 is covered in is real and therefore, continues to age, just like a human would.

terminator_upgrade.jpgThat leads in to a line that Arnold repeats a lot of times – “old, but not obsolete.” It feels like a desperate cry from the movie itself, trying to assure viewers that they’re not wasting their time here. Yet, it’s his clear enthusiasm for the role that makes it all work. This happens through a long series of callbacks; to him learning to smile, and give a thumbs-up, and to him saying I’ll be back, right before he dives out of a helicopter.

If you’re a long-time fan of the films, then you’ll also probably be excited by one of the first scenes, which shows the human resistance attacking, and defeating Skynet. It’s an event that was described to us in the first film, and the promise of watching it play out now is pretty cool.

Unfortunately, what you really get is a long “inspirational” speech by John Connor, that’s at par with Bill Pullman’s speech from Independence day, and then we see a confused assault that shows a handful of humans and machines firing away at each other, and then things are over almost before they began.

And then you get into a real mess of time travel – first you have Kyle being sent to 1984, only to discover that another T-1000 terminator was sent to 1973, when Sarah was saved by a T-800. He’s grown old and is her only family; she calls him pops, and he glowers impassively. Then, Kyle and Sarah’s actions prevent Judgement Day in 1997, but it’s going to happen anyway in 2017. So the two of them travel through time again, to save the day.

terminator_young.jpgExcept that the machines have sent someone back to 2014, who gets a job with Miles Dyson (who made Skynet in the original timeline) and helps develop a new OS for your phone, tablet and other devices called Genisys, which will bring your entire life to the cloud. Except that Genisys is Skynet, and this leads to one of the more confusing scenes in the movie where a character asks his younger self in an alternate timeline to remember something in the future, so that he will remember it in the past, so that he can change the future. Wait, what?

Between playing fast and loose with common sense as well as good storytelling, and spending more time in trying to remind you about how great Terminator 1 and Terminator 2 were, this film ends up being a complete waste of time.

On the plus side, Terminator Genisys looks – and sounds – fantastic. It’s not something you want to watch at home; if you’re at all interested in this movie, then watch it in a cinema hall so that the sound of buildings exploding and buses flipping over like toys can shake your seat and the screen can fill up your vision.

There’s a gunfight that has the two terminators casually shooting at each other while in helicopters, which is incredibly stupid to watch, but also exceptionally cool. The scene ends with the clip you’ve already seen in the trailer, where the T-800 says “I’ll be back”, and then dives out to smash the other helicopter into pieces.

The final fight is also visually impressive, but it’s so over the top that you might start to think that you’re watching Rajinikanth’s Enthiran instead of Terminator. Overall, if you’re looking for mindless spectacle then this film delivers, particularly in the first part that’s set in 1984 where the new T-1000 is excellent and fights dirty.

But the fact is that action spectacles are a lot more common today than they were in 1984, and this film isn’t able to combine that action with a plot, or characters one would care about at all. Eventually, Terminator Genisys is only barely passable, and we’d sum it up using the T-800’s words. Hasta la vista, Mother of dragons 😛