In 1997, Gattaca – a title derived from the four main nucleobases found in the nucleic acids: guanine,  adenine, cytosine, and thymine- brought us a dystopic future where people could decide whether to prune their babies DNA to prevent them from genetic diseases in the future -although the idea quickly degenerated into tailoring a new generation of flawless robot-like humans. The idea is not new -see, for example, Miles’ origin in the Vorkosigan saga (Lois McMaster Bujold)- and could probably look like a good thing, only … what happens if you are not tailored to perfection? if they knew from birth you’d develop a serious disease, could you get a good job? buy a house? get married and have kids? In the movie, the answer is a clear “no”, although it does not account for human determination and endurance. And we are not even going into “A brave new world” territory -where  lower castes are deliberately handicapped by the introduction of toxins during gestation and development to have low cost labour- nor raising similarities to eugenics, if only to avoid the Godwin’s Law.

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However, wouldn’t you avoid genetic diseases in our progeny if you could? Because, at this point, technically you could. Sort of. Only maybe you shouldn’t.

The best known technique to do so is the so called CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats). Francisco Juan Martinez Mojica in 2005 found a number of DNA fragments in bacteria and archaea genome that had been previously observed by  Yoshizumi Ishino, but whose function was unknown. CRISPR was usually found in company of specific genes that were labelled “CRISPR associated” (Cas) genes. Martinez Mojica explained that CRISPR derived RNA combined with Cas proteines were part of a defense system against viruses: it searches for the attacking virus genetic material using the RNA as a reference and Cas slices it to render it harmless. Furthermore, Cas preserve some virus fragments to add them to the host genetic code so they already have a reference for future attacks (sort of a genetic vaccine, for -extreme- simplification).

Further research showed the potential of CRISPR for gene edition. Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier re-engineered a Cas9 endonuclease into a two-component system that could find and cut the DNA target specified by any guide RNA.

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Source: Alkhnbashi, Omer & Costa, Fabrizio & Shah, Shiraz & Garrett, Roger & Saunders, Sita & Backofen, Rolf. (2014). CRISPRstrand: predicting repeat orientations to determine the crRNA-encoding strand at CRISPR loci. Bioinformatics (Oxford, England). 30. i489-i496.

Simplifying in extreme, if you want to cut a DNA sequence from a gene, you need to create the corresponding guide RNA in the lab, combine it with Cas9 and send it to do its job. Afterwards, you can just leave the hole in the target chain (indel process) or even replace the cut fragment with a chosen one.

Voila! If one could “cut” all the genes associated to diseases and/or replace them with disease resistant ones, resilient population achieved! Obviously, as soon as it was stated that this process could be used on humans, yet another patent war was unleashed.

However, the process had not been applied to humans yet for several critical reasons. First, the specificity of RNA guides is not perfect, meaning that Cas9 may cut fragments we do not want it to and provoke who knows what (mutations). Also, it can not be granted that every single cell of an organism is edited (genetic mosaicism). This uncertainty should be more than enough to stop tests with humans, specially since we are contemplating inheritable genetic modification, i.e. when babies grow up and reproduce, they’ll pass these modifications to their own descendants even if effects are totally undesirable … unless one is thinking of sterilization. Like in a Brave New World. Only there are countries more lax than others where ethics are concerned.

It turns out that in 2018 He Jiankui, a chinese researcher, decided to edit the genome of two embryos to reproduce a mutation known as delta32. In cells with this mutation, gen CCR5 lacks 32 nucleotids and can not produce a protein that VIH uses to invade lymphocytes. All in all, he wanted to produce kids inmune to HIV. Bad news are that not only did he not achieve that delta32 mutation, but also provoked other mutations in gen CCR5 as well as in other parts of the genome, plus not all cells were edited. As expected.  The consequences in medium/long term of this experiment are unpredictable. At the moment, China denies any official involvement, He’s lab has been closed and He is (apparently) missing.

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In a near future, decades into the 21st century) air travel has been abandoned due to major damage in the ozone layer damage. Instead, the world is now interconnected by a mega-motorway system called C3C. Meanwhile, global cooling has intensified and a major part of the world is frozen. While difficult to cross, land connections are now possible via the northern arctic. This is the background story of Gypsy, a comic by Marini and Smolderen, a comicbook from 1992 that, unfortunately, is not as far from reality as we would like. The C3C or circumpolar 3-continental connects all 5 continents and runs across the Atlantic and the Indic Ocean. Something out of scale, considering that the Channel Tunnel (37,9 km from France to UK) took 6 years to complete and €19 billion, well over its original 6 billion budge.

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However, nowadays it looks like a possibility to run a world-wide transport network, as the Boring Company pitched for the so called Hyperloop tunnels to alleviate surface traffic. The idea is to build 14-foot wide tunnels to speed autonomous electric cars up in vacuum conditions. Although the original idea was to use passenger pod carrying up to 16 people, the concept changed to focus on cars, probably after Elon Musk decided to invest in the projects. Expectations were to dispatch 4,000 cars per hour and reach speeds up to 700 mph. 

The hyperloop is basically a vacuum (or, rather, low pressure) tube, evaporated to near-zero pounds per square inch. In absence of air, vehicles inside have almost no friction to move ahead. There would still be rolling friction against the ground, obviously, but we can increase speed further using magnetic levitation (maglev), a technology that already in use -e.g. to connect Shanghai airport and the city- but is not extensively used due to its major energy consumption. Hyperloop Transportation Technologies has proposed a passive maglev alternative to reduce costs: whereas active maglev systems rely on copper coiling on lines, they propose to puts the magnets on the trains and works with aluminium tracks, so trains power themselves into the air. When trains are on air, a thrust can be fired to accelerate to the target speed and, then, to slow the pods as the magnetic system regeneratively recharges and helps bring the vehicle to a stop.

If technological barriers are overcome and target speeds are reached, mega-regions would be a reality. For example, commuting from San Francisco to L.A. every day would be a 35-minute trip, according to Elon Musk and his 2013  “Hyperloop Alpha” whitepaper. 

Although there is competition like Virgin Hyperloop One, thus far Elon Musk’s startup is leading the race for hyperloop. Indeed, his aerospace company, SpaceX  has been holding competitions on pod design and propulsion for university-based teams. Competing pods have to propel themselves through a mile-long (1.6 km) test tube up to a distance of 100 ft (30 m) from its end, and then stop safely. The latest speed record (2019) is 288 mph (463 km/h). Hyperloop One has also hosted its own Global Challenge to decide which cities should be connected around the world.

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Image source: Inverse

Transatlantic trips are still off the table, but, who knows?

 

Sources: Electrek, Inverse,

Have you ever longed for a magic dress that changes itself while you are wearing it? Well, someone has, because it is a trending topic in Ambient Intelligence.

Actually, color change is already solved (up to a point) and the answer is a substance known as thermochrome, that changes colors depending on the temperature. There are two blends of thermochromes: liquid crystals and leuco dyes. The first ones, you have probably seen in (cheap) thingies like mood rings or color changing mugs. Leuco dyes are a combination of colored chemicals that react when temperature goes over 25º C (approximately) and become colorless. The reaction is reversible, so when the temperature drops, they gain their color back. A layer of leuco dyes can be applied to any cloth and the resulting color is the combination of its original color and the substance … until it goes colorless. (Not so) Instant color change!

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Picture taken from Del Sol clothing

Of course, heat is kind of ok for a mug, because you can check whether the liquid inside is cold or hot, but not so much for clothes, because temperature tends to change too slow for changes to be too flashy. Other substances can be affected by different stimuli, like light, heat and friction. Lauren Bowker, from the Unseen, worked out a new ink (PHNX) that reacts to seven different parameters in the environment, including air pollution, heat, air friction and moisture. This basically means that your sweater could switch colors when you move from one part of the city to another. Chameleon style!

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Image taken from wired.co.uk

Cool, right? Well, you don’t have to pretend. I know that when we started talking about color changing fashion, you were thinking of this:

Well, maybe we can’t get exactly this (pity), but, is it actually possible to change textiles at will if we mix thermochromes and electronics. Take, for example, Chromosonic, by Hungarian designer Judit Eszter Karpati. She also relies on a temperature-sensitive dye, but instead of leaving changes to the whims of nature, she has actually woven nichrome wires into the fabric.

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Nichrome is a fairly well known alloy of nickel, chromium and other elements that has been widely used as industrial heater. If one heats up the wires in a pattern using, for example, a microcontroller, the dye in the surrounding textile changes colors responding to the pattern, which, in the case of Chromosomic, turns out to be an audio file. Problem is, obviously, that it’s actually way easier to heat things up that to cool them off.

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Image taken from Chromosomic (Tumblr)

… or, if you want to stick solely to electronics and make a dress that it’s not just a christmas tree, you can actually sew sensors and LEDs into your fabric and make it sensitive to whatever magnitude you want to measure. Environment Dress, from UH513, won the Next Things 2015 award doing exactly that. Only for the brave people, though!

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