The Wonder, September 21 - Brains Grown in a Jar, Battery-Powered Trains, and Saving the Great Barrier Reef

INblog, technology, the wonder|BYsf appworks

A Weekly Snapshot of Life-Changing Technology

Happy Friday!

Joke as we may about the intrusion of voice assistant devices in our homes, they aren’t going away anytime soon. Amazon is doubling down on its Alexa-powered devices with plans to release eight new voice-controlled hardware devices this year.

The devices include a smart microwave that takes natural language commands like “Alexa, reheat my coffee,” or “Alexa, defrost a potato”, an in-car gadget, an amplifier, and a subwoofer.

Amazon is pushing hard to be the leader of the connected home, pitting itself against companies like GE and Whirlpool.

How smart is your home? We’d love to hear what gadgets you’re using. Just give us a holler.

Now on to the Wonder…

Brains Grown In A Jar

San Francisco-based System1 Biosciences is using brain organoids to test new treatments for neurological and psychiatric disorders.

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Andrew’s Take: We know so little about the brain and testing the impact that drugs have on it has to be done slowly and carefully. With a brain-like tissue culture that can replicate how the brain might respond to things, we can become much bolder in how we develop and test drugs that treat epilepsy, autism, and schizophrenia. Bolder tests lead to bolder results.    

Darius’s Take: What’s really cool about this company is the infrastructure and automation they built around growing and reporting on organoids. Everything is automated – from growing the organoids from stem cells to monitoring and reporting. The ability to collect and report on data produced by these organoids at scale is what’s going to open the door for rapid advancements in new brain drugs and treatments.

Battery-Powered Trains

In an effort to reduce diesel consumption in Germany, Canadian transportation firm Bombardier and German officials are introducing a battery-powered train.

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Andrew’s Take: Most trains are already powered by electricity, but 40% of German railroads aren’t electrified and it would be expensive to do so. Diesel trains are used on those tracks, but diesel emits harmful pollutants that can directly affect the health of passengers. Battery-powered trains can close the gap between diesel and the process of electrifying tracks, creating an immediate health benefit for the millions of German train riders and operators.

Darius’s Take: My first thought when I looked at this was “why not lay out an electric grid powered by clean energy for the train tracks?”. Then I realized the costs could be enormous in geographically challenged areas. Battery power has come a long way and we’re seeing it more and more in cars and trucks (!), propelling them hundreds of miles on a single charge. Why not use them for trains too? A few other benefits include being able to charge batteries via solar and the option to store batteries in the regular train cars for extra range.

Saving the Great Barrier Reef

Reef Ecologic, a conservation group led by Nathan Cool, is attempting to regrow surviving coral fragments on the Great Barrier Reef by using electricity.

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Andrew’s Take: Climate change strikes again. Corals bleach (and die) when extreme weather events like abnormal heat or severe storms make them expel their symbiotic algae. In 2016 and 2017, two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef bleached (sniffle) because of abnormal weather. Corals can take decades to grow, but bleaching events are predicted to happen every five years now. At some point, not enough corals will be left to regrow the reef. Using electricity can speed up the process 4-5x, but it’s still not fast enough. In other words, we have a race between time and technology.

Darius’s Take: This is a great application of simple physics principles to help remedy some of the problems we introduced with the industrial (and technological) boom. The idea is to place electrified metal frames in places where the coral was destroyed. The electrified frames will attract minerals which will encourage and accelerate coral growth. While this method helps, complementary strategies are going to be needed – I heard of some marine scientists who are working on a plan to speed up the evolution of coral to better withstand climate change.

A Quest to Create and Perfect an Artificial Heart...

In 1969, a patient’s heart gave out on the cardiac surgeon Denton Cooley’s operating table. Cooley, desperate to save his patient, tried substituting it with a sheep’s heart (spoiler: it did not work). Since then, the quest to create an artificial heart has been a rough and tumble journey where the ‘adventurers’ are surgeons who have experimented to often disastrous results with every manner of artificial heart they can get their hands on. The adventures are detailed in Ticker, a new book by Mimi Swartz.

Thanks for reading! We’ll see you next week.

-Andrew and Darius