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16 Jul 14:21

Friends Who Are Unrelated Share A Surprising Amount Of DNA

by Alexandra Ossola

They may share more than just their lunch.
Fernando de Sousa via Wikimedia Commons

You and your best friend have a lot in common: your favorite food, your taste in music, maybe your hometown. But a new study finds that your similarities may even extend to a genetic level.

The researchers, James Fowler of University of California San Diego and Nicholas Christakis of Yale University, used data collected during the famous Framingham Heart Study, running since 1948 in the small town in Massachusetts. When participants shared their DNA with researchers for the study, they shared lots of other information, too, including who they hang out with. "Because the study started in a small community, many people that were named as friends, also happened to be involved in the study," Fowler explained to the BBC. He and Christakis looked at almost 2,000 participants and identified about 1,400 pairs of friends. 

The findings, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that people share 0.1 percent more DNA with their friends than with perfect strangers. That’s about the same genetic similarity you share with your fourth cousin.

So why might this be the case? The study authors had a few theories. Maybe people with similar genes seek out similar environments and then meet others like them. Or, people who share DNA could have comparable skill sets, so they work together better over long periods of evolutionary time.

The study has a few limitations. For one, Fowler's team didn't look across the entire human genome--they compared only about 500,000 of each person's three billion DNA base-pairs. Even though the researchers excluded anyone who was related in any way, Framingham’s population is made up mostly of descendants of Italian and Irish immigrants, so the genetic variation may not be large enough to make a broader conclusion. Evan Charney, a professor of public policy at Duke University, said that, to maintain the study’s integrity, the researchers could only study a population in which individuals are completely unrelated to one another, which is admittedly very difficult to find. Rory Bowden, a statistician at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics in Oxford, also had reservations about how countries of origin could affect the communities that people seek out, such as church groups and cultural associations, which would align people with similar genetics.

But others, including the researchers, stand by the conclusions. Findings such as this, Fowler notes, could influence theories about how altruism has developed over evolutionary time.

Of course, Fowler and Christakis don’t have all the information yet. Interestingly, they found that the biggest genetic similarities were found in friends’ sense of smell. They’re not quite sure why that would be the case, but future studies may help them sniff out the answers.

16 Jul 18:00

Does 'The Ocean Cleanup' Stand Up To Peer Review?

by Emily Gertz

Dozens of small pieces of plastic found in stomach of dead sea bird
Ocean Plastic Debris
All of these pieces of plastic were removed from the stomach of a single north fulmar, a seabird, during a necropsy at the National Wildlife Health Lab.
Carol Meteyer, USGS

Dutch engineering student Boyan Slat has a plan to cull millions of tons of animal-killing, economy-hurting plastic debris out of the world's oceans. Called “The Ocean Cleanup”, the plan involves putting specially-designed V-shaped booms in the world's major marine gyres. As the water flows under the booms, specially designed filters hanging beneath them would collect the plastic.

According to its website, Slat believes his device could clean a given gyre of plastic bits in 7-10 years, at costs 33 times lower than current cleanup methods, and that “a major part of these costs” could be recouped by selling the collected plastic for re-use.

Slat came out of nowhere when he proposed this idea a couple years ago at age 17, and has become global sensation on the new-thinking, TED-talk, social enterprise circuit: The notion of using the ocean's own energy and motion to clean up our mess seems elegant. The possibility that a kid might invent something that solves a serious and all but intractable pollution problem seems Hollywood-ready.

The plan itself also has an entrepreneurial, this-can-pay-for-itself angle that flies well during a rocky economy, and the guy making it happen is a soulful, optimistic young man with the best of intentions. The project has raised over $1.16 million of a $2 million crowdfunding goal with 59 days to go, and has just released a first feasibility study.

But whether or not it can really work still seems uncertain. According to two marine scientists at Deep Sea News, the feasibility study has fundamental scientific shortcomings that include:

  • An “overarching use of average rather than extreme current speeds to estimate operational limits in the design process”
  • No real solutions for how biofouling – the growth of marine life on the boom assembly – would affect its durability and functions. “As currently designed, the moored array is under-engineered and likely to fail.”
  • Inadequate sampling of plastic pollution at depth
  • No substantial plans on how to address environmental issues, snaring unwanted critters, or “high seas law”

Deep Sea News apparently knew they were taking a tiger by the tail with this review, the first time they've covered The Ocean Cleanup since March 2013. “Originally, we had decided not to engage with this project again, since being a naysayer is neither fun nor professionally rewarding,” they note. But with the amount of approval, attention and money flowing into the project, it warrants the same kind of scrutiny that scientific work in similar fields regularly receives.

“We believe in the peer review process, both before publication and post-publication,” writes DSN. “Science is built on criticism. While peer review is by no means perfect, we have both found that a robust peer review process has greatly improved our own science. Since crowdfunding sidesteps the formal grant review process and makes funding requests public, it is appropriate that the review be public as well.”

The plastic debris problem may also be more complex than The Ocean Cleanup's initial feasibility study accounted for. A new, first-of-its-kind map of ocean plastic debris has revealed a surprising absence of the stuff on the water's surface. Scientists involved are not yet sure where the plastic is going, or which organisms may be affected. It's research that Slat probably needs to consider as he continues to develop and promote his project.

17 Jul 20:22

The Comet We've Targeted To Land On Turns Out To Be Duck-Shaped

by Sarah Fecht

At this moment, the Rosetta spacecraft is about 250,000,000 miles away from Earth and quickly approaching the (not-so-poetically named) comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The European Space Agency launched Rosetta in 2004 with a plan to send it to 67P and drop a robotic lander onto a comet's surface for the first time ever. But as Rosetta flies nearer and nearer to the comet, it has made an unexpected discovery.

When Hubble imaged 67P back in 2003, scientists concluded the comet was a giant three-by-two mile football-shaped rock. So, this is apparently what ESA expected to see once Rosetta got there:

An artist’s impression of Rosetta orbiting Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, back when ESA thought the comet was normal-shaped.
ESA, image by AOES Medialab

Scientists began noticing something weird in the photos Rosetta sent back about a week ago. As the spacecraft approached within 23,000 miles of 67P, it started to look like the comet had three big bumps on its surface

Now Rosetta is less than 8,000 miles from the comet, and it looks like 67P actually is composed of two distinct structures. “This is unlike any other comet we have ever seen before”, Carsten Güttler, who manages Rosetta's imaging system, said in a press release. “The images faintly remind me of a rubber ducky with a body and a head.” 

So far scientists aren't sure where 67P got its irregular structure from, but an ESA blogger came up with four possibilities:

1) Two comets slowly collided together

2) A single comet was pulled into the weird shape by the gravity of the Sun or Jupiter. "Perhaps the two parts of comet 67P/C-G will one day separate completely," the writer speculates.

3) A single comet deformed as the ice in its nucleus evaporated

4) A huge chunk of something slammed into the comet and ripped off big pieces of it. 

Scientists hope to find out more about the mysterious rubber ducky's composition when Rosetta's lander touches down on the comet's surface in November. 

15 Jul 06:00


10 Jul 16:40

Climate Change Likely To Lead To More Kidney Stones

by Douglas Main

A (large) kidney stone, measuring about 0.3 inches in diameter.
Robert R. Wal via Wikimedia Commons

The hotter weather expected with climate change is likely to cause a litany of figurative aches for humanity (and already is), but some of those pains may be quite literal. A new study found that higher temperatures significantly increase the risk of developing kidney stones, hard crystals that are painful to pass and which can cause damage to the organs. The idea is that hotter weather leads people to become more dehydrated, which allows minerals to concentrate and crystalize within the body.

"We found that as daily temperatures rise, there is a rapid increase in the probability of patients presenting over the next 20 days with kidney stones," said study lead author Dr. Gregory Tasian, a pediatric urologist and epidemiologist at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, in a statement.

The study, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, examined the health records of more than 60,000 people in several American cities, along with weather records. People were most likely to show up at the hospital with kidney stones three days after high temperatures. In Chicago, Atlanta, and Dallas (the winner of the dubious prize for most stones), people were nearly 40 percent more likely to seek medical help for the condition at temperatures of 86 degrees Fahrenheit compared to when it was only 50°F  outside.

Kidney stones have become more common in the recent past, as temperatures have risen, a trend that is likely to continue, the scientists wrote.  About one in 11 people have had kidney stones, whereas they were only found in about one in 20 people in 1994. Interestingly, the really hot days seem to make a difference, as opposed to the average conditions, as CBS News noted: 

The investigators noted that the number of hot days in a year may be a better predictor of kidney stone risk than the average annual temperature. While Atlanta and Los Angeles have the same average annual temperature -- 63 degrees Fahrenheit -- Atlanta has five times more days topping 80 degrees than Los Angeles, and almost twice the prevalence of kidney stones.

Kidney stones usually do not cause permanent damage, and can be dealt with by drinking a lot of water and taking pain medication. But they sometimes do require surgery to treat, and tend to recur in a significant percentage of people who get them.

10 Jul 20:00

Gif of the Day: Airplane Drops Fish to Repopulate Lake

Gif of the Day: Airplane Drops Fish to Repopulate Lake

It doesn't seem like this works too well, but it must...

Submitted by: (via Ted Hallows)

Tagged: nature , gifs , lakes , fish , airplanes
03 Jul 18:39

laughingsquid: Television Show ‘Community’ to Return for a...

01 Jul 18:00

A Cool New Use For Legos: Growing Lab Plants

by Douglas Main

Lego plant
Lego walls hold a transparent growth medium mimicking soil. The versatile setup allows researchers to see how plants respond to increasing levels of nutrients, which are here dyed orange.
Lind et al / PLOS ONE

Legos are great for making all kinds of things--castles, pirate ships and functioning miniature dockyards, as I can tell you from experience. But a new study found that they are absolutely excellent for something unexpected: studying the growth of plants and the delicate expansion of their roots. 

The reasoning of the researchers, from Iowa State University, went like this: Greenhouses are really large. Micro-fluidic devices used to grow plants and test unique growing conditions are really expensive. So, what about Legos? Transparent blocks of the common toy are perfect for creating the micro-environments needed to study plants and their roots, the researchers wrote in the journal PLOS ONE--they are cheap, abundant, easy to re-arrange, and can be tailor-made with CAD software. The Legos can even be sterilized in an autoclave (basically like a small oven for sanitizing lab equipment) without melting, while remaining translucent.

So far the scientists have used Legos to study and produce images of the real-time growth of the roots of garden cress. The Legos are perfect for holding the see-through growth medium, a type of agar. The Legos have also allowed the researchers to study differences in soil/agar that aren't easy to produce with larger equipment, and they're great for building in air pockets, solid barriers between plots, and chemical and microbial gradients that could for example show how roots respond to increasing concentrations of fertilizer.

Lind et al / PLOS ONE


29 Jun 21:35

mineralists: Green Amber (fossilized tree resin from an ancient...


Green Amber (fossilized tree resin from an ancient relative of a tropical species called “algarroba”) from Dominican Republic

30 Jun 21:00

How I Turned Car Batteries Into A Welder [Video]

by Chris Hackett
Please enable Javascript to watch this video

If we’re lucky enough to survive Armageddon, our precious electrical grids won’t. But we needn’t pine for energy as we build a new civilization from the scraps of the old one. Inside every abandoned car is a lead-acid battery just waiting to power a makeshift arc welder. 

Saws, drills, grinders, and lathes may be more precise tools, but welding devices are unmatched for their versatility and brawn. Arc welders work by melting steel with a blinding electrical discharge. They can both sever thick beams and fuse pieces of metal together in ways that other tools can’t. Amid their showers of sparks, a pile of scrap can become a house or a boat—or even an arena for postapocalyptic blood sport.

A single car battery lacks the juice to sustain a metal-melting arc between the tip of a welding rod and a piece of steel. (Zombies holding your supply hostage? Welding rods can be made from coat hangers, silica gel, lye, and paper.) So to build my welder, I wired three car batteries in series, then clamped a set of jumper cables between the negative lead of the first battery and a chunk of steel. With another set of cables, I linked the last battery’s positive lead to a welding rod.

By scraping the rod against the steel, I was able to strike an electric arc. The batteries provided a flow of electrons powerful enough to melt steel in the rod and base metal and merge them, creating a weld. My rig has a maximum output of 300 amps, which is plenty to cut or combine thick steel. Yet it is adjustable, so it can also weld delicate sheet metal; I routed the batteries’ current through a dining fork, which provides some resistance and limits the flow of electrons.

If you can make a welder and get good at using it, you’ll have an unstoppable tool for building after the end-time. When you run out of electricity, charge the car batteries with a bike generator [see “Rebuild,” March 2014] and get to work assembling your very own Thunderdome.  

Warning: Do not attempt until lawyers no longer roam the Earth.

Hackett is Popular Science’s intrepid DIY ​columnist.

Photograph by Ray Lego


This article originally appeared in the July 2014 issue of Popular Science.

24 Jun 15:37

Obama Starts Task Force To Prevent Bee Deaths

by Douglas Main

Bee Hive
Andrew McMillan/Wikimedia Commons
Honeybees are vital for pollinating plants that provide the fruits, nuts, and vegetables that we eat, a service that is valued at around $15 billion annually in the United States. But these and other bees are in trouble, as you may have heard--while there were 6.5 million commercial honeybee hives in 1947, there are now only 2.5 million--and bee populations saw a 23 percent decline last winter alone. Now, the White House is getting involved, and has directed the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture to set up a task force to get to the bottom of the recent decline in bees.

The task force will have to come up with a strategy within six months to reverse this decline. In the announcement, President Obama said he will also set aside $8 million for new honeybee habitats. The initiative doesn't only focus on bees, but also addresses other pollinators, like butterflies. "The Federal Government will also work to restore the Monarch butterfly migration using research and habitat improvements that will benefit Monarchs as well as other native pollinators and honey bees," the statement said.

What's going on with bees? As the White House noted, the decline is blamed on various factors, from a lack of good habitat, to exposure to certain pesticides, to mite infestations and viruses. Part of the total $50 million is slated to "enhance research" as to a cause for the bee deaths.

Some environmental groups said that Obama didn't go far enough, and should have specifically done some about neonicotinoid pesticides, which have been linked to bee deaths. "The administration should prevent the release and use of these toxic pesticides until determined safe," Friends of the Earth president Erich Pica told the AP.

26 Jun 18:14

Is Global Warming Creating Penguin Winners And Losers?

by Emily Gertz

Adélie penguins and chicks
Adélie penguins
The species is found only in Antarctica.
PLOS Biology via Wikimedia Commons

Planetary temperatures warmed up naturally thousands of years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age. Some Antarctic penguin populations flourished under the changes. 11,000 years later, however, some Adélie and chinstrap colonies are turning from winners into losers: As temperatures around the western Antarctic Peninsula increase at some of the fastest rates on Earth, their population numbers are falling quickly, while gentoo penguins appear to holding their own.

What's the difference between then and now?

Looking the past to learn more about how different species might fare under today's anthropogenic climate change, researcher Gemma Clucas of the University of Southhampton, U.K., and her team collected samples of feathers and blood from 537 individual Adélie, chinstrap, and gentoo penguins, which live and breed near each other on the Antarctic Peninsula, and sequenced DNA from the samples.

By calculating the rate of genetic diversification revealed in the DNA, Clucas and her team were able to project how the different species' populations changed over time, and draw some tentative conclusions about why. Their findings are published in the June 12, 2014 edition of the open-access journal Scientific Reports.

Their findings suggest that while a certain absence of ice is important to improving the welfare of penguins, too little can tip things against them.

During the last Ice Age, the amount of ice covering land and water around the Antarctic Peninsula limited the growth of these penguin populations, because all three species need access to the sea to feed, and ice-free land for breeding. When snow and ice cover on both water and land decreased, the penguins were able to get at increased amounts of krill, minute shrimp which feed on algae growing beneath the ice. There was also more ice-free land available for nesting and raising chicks. Gentoo, chinstrap, and Adélie penguins all appear to have flourished for thousands of years under these conditions.

But with sea-ice further melting over the last half-century, krill habitat has also decreased. Most colonies of chinstraps and Adélie, which have krill-heavy diets, are losing numbers fast, while gentoo penguins, which eat a wider array of fish and squid in addition to krill, seem to be showing greater resilience to the shifting environment. Clucas and her colleagues think the more varied diet is a key:

This ‘reversal of fortunes’ for two former climate change ‘winners’ has resulted from anthropogenic impacts outside the range of natural variation that has occurred in the past. Rapid warming trends in the Antarctic Peninsula over the past 50 years has led to decreased sea ice, loss of winter habitat, and a reduction in krill stocks that is negatively affecting Adélie and chinstrap penguins, but not gentoo penguins5, 18, which apparently are not as reliant on krill17. While we know of no other examples of ‘reversal in fortunes’ as documented here, we expect many more will be identified as global warming proceeds and biodiversity declines.

The researchers don't want the findings to be taken as a sign that global warming is nothing to worry about, however. Says one report co-author in a statement, "We are not saying that today's warming climate is good for penguins. In fact, the current decline of some penguin species suggests that the warming climate has gone too far for most penguins."

26 Jun 21:30

Why The Supreme Court Thinks Streaming Is Cable TV

by Kelsey D. Atherton

Aereo Antenna Array

Yesterday, in a 6-3 decision by the Supreme Court in ABC v. Aereo, the government ruled that Aereo's streaming of cable TV over the web is illegal. In the process, the Supreme Court majority showed its confusion over how the internet works—and technology in general—and put forth a strange interpretation of the term "public performance."

Here's how Aereo works (or worked, rather): A subscriber with an internet connection wants to watch a live television show. Rather than paying separately for TV service or even owning a digital TV antenna, however, the customer instead watches the show from a remote antenna that Aereo rents to them. That antenna streams the TV show, as freely broadcast over the air, to the Aereo subscriber via the internet. Aereo also offers the option to digitally record video of a broadcast to its server farm for future viewing (and stream that content, too). Many cable TV subscriptions provide a physical digital video recorder for viewers to save shows; Aereo does this on equipment in a warehouse that is controlled, in part, by each of its subscribers.

The case essentially came down to whether or not this streaming of broadcasts by Aereo counts as a distinct "performance," and if that infringes on the rights of broadcasters to exclusively air content. Here's the SCOTUS majority opinion on the matter, in case you speak legalese:

Does Aereo “perform”? See §106(4) (“[T]he owner of [a] copyright . . . has the exclusive righ[t] . . . to perform the copyrighted work publicly” (emphasis added)); §101 (“To perform . . . a work ‘publicly’ means [among other things] to transmit . . . a performance . . . of the work . . . to the public . . . ” (emphasis added)). Phrased another way, does Aereo “transmit . . . a performance” when a subscriber watches a show using Aereo’s system, or is it only the subscriber who transmits? In Aereo’s view, it does not perform. It does no more than supply equipment that “emulate[s] the operation of a home antenna and [digital video recorder (DVR)].” Brief for Respondent 41. Like a home antenna and DVR, Aereo’s equipment simply responds to its subscribers’ directives. So it is only the subscribers who “perform” when they use Aereo’s equipment to stream television programs to themselves.

After this part, the ruling gets weird. It looks back in time, which is a standard for a practice based on precedent, but the justices chose to highlight pieces of the past that are, well, strange.

One was Community Access TV (CATV), a cable precursor that Popular Science wrote about in 1970. Like Aereo, CATV allowed home viewers to watch broadcast channels, yet with higher fidelity than broadcast. Yet CATV (again, similar to Aereo) suffered a blow that changed how the law saw the service it provided; a 1976 law subjected cable companies to copyright laws in a similar way to over-the-air broadcasters.

To rule as it did on Aereo, the Supreme Court overlooked 40-some years of technological advancement since early cable television and said that, because Aereo functions somewhat like a cable company, it is one. And this is where it comes down to a definition of performance.

Copyright is big on regulating performance. It's a reason companies pay billions of dollars for exclusive rights to air rare events, like the Olympics. NBC broadcasting the Olympics is, in the eye of the law, a performance by NBC. Aereo, however, makes no content selection—its subscribers do that.

In other words: When the law defined "performance," its definition hinged on networks selecting the content they broadcast, not subscribers. And that is a major distinction from the CATV precedent, where the Court ruled that the CATV network selected programing and sent it out continuously. The ruling by Justice Stephen Breyer in ABC v. Aereo argues that emphasizing this difference "makes too much out of too little."

A Large Aereo Array

While the Supreme Court decision ruled against Aereo by treating it like a cable company (and, in a weirder later metaphor, like a car dealership instead of a valet), the dissenting opinion better grasps how the technology works.

Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, instead dispute the definition of "performance." If a future case succeeds where Aereo failed, it will likely cite this dissent when it does.

Rather than seeing Aereo as just another cable company, and one that doesn't pay for the rights to what it broadcasts, Scalia sees Aereo more in line with the technology that enables it, i.e. as an internet provider. The violation, in this line of thinking, comes not from the company that collects broadcasts, but rather hinges on the consumers. They're the ones who use the technology and choose to watch broadcasts they haven't otherwise paid for.

Scalia writes:

Internet-service providers are a prime example. When one user sends data to another, the provider’s equipment facilitates the transfer automatically. Does that mean that the provider is directly liable when the transmission happens to result in the “reproduc[tion],”§106(1), of a copyrighted work? It does not. The provider’s system is “totally indifferent to the material’s content,” whereas courts require “some aspect of volition”directed at the copyrighted material before direct liability may be imposed.

He continues, likening the copying function of recorded and stored broadcasts to that of a copy shop:

A comparison between copy shops and video-on-demand services illustrates the point. A copy shop rents out photocopiers on a per-use basis. One customer might copy his 10-year-old’s drawings—a perfectly lawful thing to do—while another might duplicate a famous artist’s copyrighted photographs—a use clearly prohibited by §106(1). Either way, the customer chooses the content and activates the copying function; the photocopier does nothing except in response to the customer’s commands. Because the shop plays no role in selecting the content, it cannot be held directly liable when a customer makes an infringing copy. See CoStar, supra, at 550

In published response to the court decision, Aereo CEO and Founder Chet Kanojia emphasizes the Scalia dissent:

“Justice Scalia’s dissent gets it right. He calls out the majority’s opinion as ‘built on the shakiest of foundations.’ (Dissent, page 7) Justice Scalia goes on to say that ‘The Court vows that its ruling will not affect cloud-storage providers and cable television systems, see ante, at 16-17, but it cannot deliver on that promise given the imprecision of its results-driven rule.’ (Dissent, page 11)”

The dissenting SCOTUS view on this case aside, Aereo and other companies must now live with the majority view. The Electronic Frontier Foundation highlights the danger the ruling poses to other technology companies:

"With this ruling, the Supreme Court said that technology companies can't rely on the words of the Copyright Act—companies can follow the letter of the law but still get shut down if a court decides that their business is somehow similar to a cable company," said EFF Staff Attorney Mitch Stoltz. "This decision will make it harder for new independent media technologies to get launched and funded without the blessing of major media companies, and that's a loss for all of us."

The Supreme Court's ruling on Aereo, in effect, protects the broadcast rights of television and cable companies while denying future technologies the same leeway that made cable broadcasting possible in the first place. And, weirdly enough, it does it on behalf of ABC—a company that still broadcasts freely over the air.

19 Jun 16:59

How To Cure Garlic Breath

by Lindsey Kratochwill

Jackie Bale/Getty Images

Counter to most vampire lore, there is no magic to the pungent odor of garlic. The stench is the result of four major sulfur-containing compounds, which, when ingested, move into the bloodstream and then out through the lungs and sweat glands. But that doesn’t make it any less repellent. In April, food scientists at Ohio State University published a paper exploring the best foods and beverages to neutralize garlic’s noxious effect. We drew a few practical conclusions:


Fruits that brown when exposed to air contain an oxidating enzyme. This compound also sets off a chemical chain reaction that deodorizes offending sulfides.


It’s loaded with plant chemicals known as polyphenols, which work through a similar mechanism to neutralize all four sulfide compounds.


Acidic beverages with a pH below 3.6 destroy the enzyme alliinase, which activates when garlic is crushed and enhances the smelly sulfuric properties.


This article originally appeared in the July 2014 issue of Popular Science.

19 Jun 21:34


20 Jun 15:40

What Are Your Picks For The Best In Cli-Fi?

by Emily Gertz

Still image from the climate change disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow
Who'll Stop The Rain?
A still from the 2004 climate fiction-disaster epic, "The Day After Tomorrow." Director Roland Emmerich drew on real climate science to imagine the rapid onslaught of global warming impacts like the stall of the Great Atlantic current, catastrophic freezing of the global North, and a world without humor or irony.

Dan Bloom of The Wrap writes that he is organizing new annual film award: the “Cliffies,” given for excellence in “cli-fi” movies, as in climate fiction.

Problem is, few movies about global warming or its impacts appear in any given year--particularly those that deal with them fairly directly, instead of using climate change as a dystopian backdrop to some other kind of story. So for now at least, Bloom's proposition has wobbly legs.

But what would happen if we opened up the field up to other kinds of pop culture, as well as the full lineage of climate-disruption fiction that's appeared over the better part of the past half-century?

Thank you, readers, for answering that question on Twitter and Facebook; even for those nominations I disagreed with. (Good online manners much appreciated.)

We've still got plenty of categories left to cover, though like Directing; Actor, Female; Costumes; Special Effects; and any other movie or TV award categories you'd care to make the case for. And how about the best comic or graphic novel about global warming? The best YA fiction? Best music? Please tweet your nominations to @ejgertz

Here are the un-scientific, un-audited results so far:

Best Movie

Winner: Soylent Green (1973)

Nominated by: Patrick Di Justo

Why: Soylent Green is “the first Hollywood film in which the plot revolves (in part) around the greenhouse effect," writes Patrick. "Extra points for being the first Hollywood film to mention 'greenhouse effect,' ” he says, and includes some gifs to prove it.

Full Disclosure: Patrick and I are longtime companions, and co-authors on two books for Maker Media.


Honorable Mention: The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

Nominated by: Jon Lebkowsky

Why: “I don't know that it was the best, but The Day After Tomorrow was big, loud, and about as climate focused as any cli-fi film I can think of. “


Best Novel

Winner: The Mars Trilogy: Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Nominated by: @misterinteger

Why: Robinson's characters, mostly heroic and anti-heroic scientists, debate whether and how to change the Red Planet's climate, geology, and environment: “Reds” want to keep Mars wild and largely unaltered, while “Greens” advocate total transformation of the surface to make it more easily human-habitable. Their moral and ethical arguments are proxies for contemporary fights across the spectrum of global warming politics today. “KSR's Mars is a macrocosm of climate policy on earth, a 'take two' which is also fundamentally connected to earth,” writes @misterinteger.

I'd add that Robinson's speculations on how 21st century human societies respond to the pressures of severe climate disruption ring plausible--from government by corporations, to the politics of scarcity, the future of energy, solar system colonization, and geoengineering technologies. Some are already proving prescient.

Robinson is already an acclaimed science fiction great; The New Yorker recently called him "one of the most important political writers working in America."


Honorable Mentions: The Windup Girl by Paolo Baciagalupi; Dune by Frank Herbert; Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver; Arctic Rising by Tobias Bucknell; The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin


Best Actor, Male

Winner: Kevin Costner, Waterworld (1995)

Nominated by: Mary M.

Why: “Not as bad as you remember, though pretty bad.”

In this disaster epic's vision of the future, every bit of land-bound ice on Earth has melted, raising the global ocean and flooding the continents. Humanity is turned out upon the vast sea on a ragtag fleet of ocean-going rafts; fresh water and food become commodities worth killing for. Long, slow, and confusingly written, but worth the watching for a web-fingered Costner drinking his own filtered urine.


Lifetime Achievement Award

Winner: Bruce Sterling, writer, speaker, futurist, design instructor

Nominated by: @rustyk5

Why: “Sterling’s been engaged with climate issues a lot longer than most. I’m thinking of Heavy Weather specifically, but also his work with Viridian Design.

On a personal note, Heavy Weather is a personal favorite, and the Viridian Movement that Sterling founded in the 1990s was a primary source for the Worldchanging blog and book that I contributed to several years ago.


Most Destructive Cli-Fi

Winner: State of Fear, by Michael Crichton

Nominated by: Climate skeptics

Why: State of Fear, a thriller/polemic by the late TV producer, director, and novelist Michael Crichton, has arguably done more to advance crank global warming science than any other work of pop culture. Among its impacts, Crichton was invited to testify before the powerful U.S. Senate committee on Environment and Public Works in 2005, an opportunity he used to vilify the research findings of respected climate scientist Michael Mann.

“Dead of cancer. And a medical doctor, too. I hate to see people felled by this great scourge. I feel sorry for his family,” wrote Bruce Sterling upon Crichton's death in 2008. “Still – the guy missed an awesome chance to be snatched out of his writing-chair and torn to pieces in broad daylight by a freak climate-crisis windstorm. That might have made up for the harm he did. I’d like to say that Dr Crichton’s contemptibly paranoid view of climate politics will be missed, but… well…”


13 Jun 19:00

Photo of the Day: Bill Nye in 9th Grade

11 Jun 19:30

Netflix is Bringing Back a Computer Animated Version of "The Magic School Bus"

Netflix is Bringing Back a Computer Animated Version of "The Magic School Bus"

The Verge reports that in an effort to push towards more children's programming, Netflix is resurrecting the popular educational cartoon from the 1990s.

The streaming service will release 26 episodes of the reimagined show, now called The Magic School Bus 360, beginning in 2016. Ted Sarandos, Netflix's chief content officer, told The New York Times that the original series ranks as one of the most popular educational programs in his company's catalog — despite the fact that new episodes were last produced in 1997.

(image: Scholastic Media/The New York Times)

Submitted by: (via The Verge)

10 Jun 14:00

What Happens To A Human Who Spends A Month Under The Sea?

by Brian Lam

Outside Aquarius
Brian Lam
On June 1st, Fabien Cousteau, grandson of Jacques Cousteau, swam down to the last existing undersea habitat research lab in the world, Aquarius, in the Florida Keys. He'll live there for 31 days, which is a day longer than the time his grandfather spent living in his undersea habitat, Conshelf II, roughly 50 years ago. Since then, undersea bases have been created all over the world, and have since lost their funding and ceased operation. Aquarius stands as the last.

The aquanauts joining Cousteau on "Mission 31" are photographers, scientists from Northeastern and MIT specializing in marine biology and underwater engineering, and Aquarius staff. They'll all experience the unique challenge of living underwater for over a month in the pressurized saturated diving environment.

Saturated diving is a type of diving which allows the body to gradually soak up inert gases by staying at depth for a long period of time. These gases would harm a standard scuba diver by expanding like the bubbles in a shaken bottle of soda when the diver returns to the surface, causing pain, paralysis, and sometimes death. With the team sleeping in the base, at depth, and never surfacing, the divers are free to experience the most useful part of living in Aquarius: the ability to dive for 2-8 hours a day (as opposed to about an hour maximum per day that a regular scuba diver can achieve) without suffering from decompression sickness. At the end of the mission, the entire base is slowly brought back to normal pressure so that the gases can escape the diver's bodies safely, at which point the divers are free to resurface.

To find out what the human body and mind go through living in an underwater habitat, I spoke to various experts on living underwater, such as John Clark, Scientific Director for the U.S. Navy Experimental Diving Unit, who researches the effects of deep dives to 1,500 feet and Navy saturation diver Marc Chase who has worked on salvage jobs like the recovery of the USS Monitor's wreck. I also spoke to Mark Patterson and Brian Helmuth, Mission 31 science advisors who have spent working time in Aquarius, and Mark Hulsbeck, the oceanographic field operations manager who will have spent 200 days in the base overall by the end of this mission.

In the end, because research about long, relatively shallow underwater living is limited, there are a lot of theories as to the effects of living underwater on human beings, but much of it is controversial, anecdotal, and unproven by even those who study it and have experienced it.


"There are two kinds of divers, those that pee in their wetsuits and those who are liars."

The greatest malady that occurs on these undersea expeditions, according to Mark Hulsbeck, is what some aquanauts call "creeping crud." This ranges from acne to rashes to diaper rash, experienced by divers that pee in their wetsuits. (Given the extended diving time afforded by saturation, urination in a wetsuit is nearly impossible to avoid. Mark Hulsbeck told me "There are two kinds of divers, those that pee in their wetsuits and those who are liars.")

The best cure for these skin maladies is to shower off after every dive and use antibacterial soap, as well as the fresh towels that are frequently delivered to the base in pressure-cooking pots, sealed with bolted lids. Proper hygiene, in other words.

Ear infections are also common, but antiseptic solutions made with aluminum acetate are used to take care of them quickly before the infections can worsen.

Some aquanauts swear that the high-pressure environment, which is 2.5 times the normal pressure at sea level, increases healing times like hyperbaric chambers do, and that cuts can heal overnight. Others believe that to be untrue; hyperbaric chambers that provide oxygen therapy have a much higher level of oxygen in them than the atmosphere in Aquarius.

Besides that, other side effects of living in underwater bases include paleness and reduced vitamin D production, from lack of exposure to the sun. When aquanauts return to the surface, they are distinctly aware of the sensation of wind, which they might have not even realized they were missing.

Taste and Hunger

Many aquanauts have reported that their sense of taste diminishes in the habitat. Mark Patterson theorizes that the higher density of air in the habitat, means that there are fewer parts per million of food odors diffused in the air for the nose to detect. Regardless of what the actual science is, many aquanauts resort to putting hot sauce on everything.

Both the extended dive time and thicker in-habitat air pull heat from divers much more rapidly than a normal sea level atmosphere would, and so their metabolisms must work harder to maintain body temperatures. People tend to eat a lot as a result. In the old days, when the habitat was positioned near land in St. Croix, near land, aquanauts were catered fresh local food like beans, rice, and lobster. After the base was relocated to the Florida Keys (after a hurricane struck St. Croix), aquanauts relied on MREs, with choices diminishing as the season progressed. (Brian Helmuth says that the Salisbury steak was particularly not good.) These days, under the management of Florida International University, Aquarius's aquanauts eat rehydrated freeze-dried camping food, which is high-calorie and varied. Hulsbeck expects the aquanauts to get sick of it before their 31 days are up.

Occasionally, aquanauts receive deliveries of pizza, hamburgers on special request (or lasagna made by Hulsbeck's wife) which are brought down in sealed containers by support divers, but those meals are rare.





In the habitat, because of the exhausting nature of being in the water several hours a day and because even time inside the habitat is busy, everyone sleeps really well at night. One aquanaut, professional photographer Kip Evans, complained that silver fish called tarpon swimming near the bedroom porthole, reflecting outside habitat lights back into the bunk room, made it difficult to sleep. The habitat does, however, have plenty of white noise from carbon dioxide scrubbers, and the general static of reef creatures like snapping shrimp and other animals living their lives on and around the base, which has become an artificial reef.

Breathing and Speaking

The greater air density causes aquanauts' speech to become slightly higher pitched when they first enter the base, but either the pitch adjusts or people's ears adjust to the higher-pitched conversation.

Navy divers, Marc Chase told me, take great care to not get respiratory diseases from their dive gear, because the sick person can't be evacuated without the entire team having to also be slowly brought to normal pressure (decompressed) and leaving, too. And in close quarters, it's easier to contaminate each other. They are careful not to let anyone who has an existing cold down into the habitat, and have never had to evacuate the lab because of infection.


Aquanauts use a little hut outside the moonpool, the part of the base with an open floor that gives the aquanauts access to the sea, which they call the gazebo. The gazebo has an air pocket inside of it, and to reach it, aquanauts have to hold their breath and walk or swim over, wearing a swimsuit. Bathroom breaks are often not private as the fish have learned that when a diver enters the gazebo, it's feeding time. After one too many particularly nerve-wracking incidents with fish getting nippy, the Aquarius staff have set up a bubble curtain powered by compressed air to keep the fish away.


Other than having to get accustomed to lower amounts of light, people don't report noticing that living underwater affects their vision.


Some aquanauts report feeling nitrogen narcosis, a syndrome not uncommonly experienced during diving, wherein at a certain depth a diver can feel drunk. Some have theorized that the depth the habitat is at is not deep enough to cause this effect immediately, but after the aquanauts' bodies become saturated with nitrogen in the habitat after 24 hours, a sense of giddiness occurs. Mark Hulsbeck believes that it might not be nitrogen narcosis at all, but just a sense of joy from doing something as cool as living in an undersea base for a few days.

Psychological Stability

The aquanauts aren't screened for psychological stability or vulnerability to claustrophobia, antisocial behavior, or cabin fever.

Navy saturation divers who plan to be on long missions spend the preceding weeks together to vet out incompatibilities in personality and work ethics, however.

Isolation and Boredom

Back in the day, there were no internet connections in Aquarius, and aquanauts could only read books or stay busy to stave off boredom. Now they can watch Netflix and call their loved ones as often as they want.


When asked if an aquanaut could stay in the base indefinitely, Mark Hulsbeck offered that it's not known what the limits are, but given the higher density of air and relatively higher amounts of oxygen taken per breath, there would be eventual damage to a human's circulation systems, which Hulsbeck referred to as "pulmonary toxicity." The relatively shallow depth of the base was chosen so that longer saturation missions like this one could be feasible, but rarely do missions come as close to being as long as this one will, as most are only 7-10 days.



03 Jun 22:14

littlelimpstiff14u2: Artist Henrique Oliveira Constructs a...


Artist Henrique Oliveira Constructs a Cavernous Network of Repurposed Wood Tunnels at MAC USP

Brazilian artist Henrique Oliveira (previously) recently completed work on his largest installation to date titled Transarquitetônica at Museu de Arte Contemporânea da Universidade in São Paulo. As with much of his earlier sculptural and installation work the enormous piece is built from tapumes, a kind of temporary siding made from inexpensive wood that is commonly used to obscure construction sites. Oliveira uses the repurposed wood pieces as a skin nailed to an organic framework that looks intentionally like a large root system. Because the space provided by the museum was so immense, the artist expanded the installation into a fully immersive environment where viewers are welcome to enter the artwork and explore the cavernous interior. Transarquitetônica will be on view through the end of November this year, and you can watch the video above by Crane TV to hear Oliveira discuss its creation.

Via Colossal

29 May 22:10

SpaceX Unveils First Manned Spacecraft

by Sophie Bushwick

Dragon In Orbit
SpaceX will reveal its first manned spacecraft at 7 PM (PDT) tonight. The Dragon V2 capsule is designed to carry humans to the International Space Station, and may eventually free NASA from its reliance on the Russian space program.

An earlier version of the Dragon capsule already proved its mettle as a cargo ship. In 2012, it became the first private spacecraft to deliver supplies to the ISS. Its arrival also marked the first time since the space shuttles’ retirement that a U.S. ship made an ISS delivery.

Since the shuttles were grounded, American astronauts have needed Russian Soyuz spacecraft to take them into orbit. But this situation became precarious in the wake of action in the Ukraine. Earlier this month, NASA cut ties with almost all of their Russian collaborations, with the exception of running the ISS.

Despite Russian threats, it’s unlikely that they would abandon the Soyuz taxi service and its $457.9 million price tag. But Americans are still eager to find an independent method of space travel. And private companies like SpaceX are their best bet.

While the upgraded Dragon is ready for its close-up, it’s nowhere near ready to take off. The first manned test flight is still a few years away.

28 May 17:59



LeVar Burton has started a Kickstarter campaign to bring back Reading Rainbow. And, everyone at here School of Fail pretty much wet their pants with joy. We grew up with that show, and Star Trek: The Next Generation, so our normally dead and uncaring eyes cried joyous tears of nostalgia and hope. And, here's why:

Submitted by: (via Kickstarter)

23 May 19:00

It's World Turtle Day

by Emily Gertz

Photo of tiny bog turtle
Bog Baby
Bog turtles, found from Vermont to Georgia, and inland to Ohio, are among the smallest known turtles: Even full grown, they average around four ounces in weight and four inches long. Despite its wide geographic range, the bog turtle has become much rarer due to loss of habitat. It's listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

It's World Turtle Day today—an annual celebration created by the group American Tortoise Rescue to generate admiration and conservation mojo for these shell-toting reptiles.

Turtles, tortoises, terrapins: Whatever they're called, as a group they date back to the Late Triassic Period, around 220 million years ago, making them among the most ancient of contemporary reptiles.

They can range widely in size: Among the smallest is the bog turtle, which tops out at 4.5 inches and about 4 ounces. The largest is the leatherback sea turtle, which can grow to over six feet long (shell edge to shell edge) and weigh from 500 to 2,000 pounds.

Leatheback Sea Turtle
Leatherback Sea Turtle
The leatherback sea turtle weighs only about two ounces at hatching, but adults can grow up to six feet long (in shell length) and range from 500 to 2,000 lbs. It's also a deep diver, able to descend below 3,9000 feet. This leatherback sea turtle was photographed on the beach at Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge, U.S. Virgin Islands.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Something these two species share, however, is that they—and many other turtle species around the world--are having a hard time surviving into the 21st century:

  • Bog turtles, although widely distributed along the East Coast and into the eastern interior of the United States, are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The major threats to this small turtle include loss of habitat to urban development, and invasive plants displacing native plants in the marshes, swamps, muddy woodlands, fens, and (yes) bogs that it prefers.
  • Leatherback sea turtles are extremely endangered in many of their traditional habitat ranges around the world. Their numbers are being cut by chemical pollution and coastal development, as well as eating floating plastic bags (which resemble jellyfish, their favorite prey), getting netted with fish as “bycatch,” and poaching.

The National Wildlife Federation recently reported that 2010's Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is still affecting many marine species, with around 500 dead sea turtles found in the area every year since 2011-- "a dramatic increase over normal rates."

Over 150 freshwater turtle species (like the box turtle) face equally existential risks worldwide. The New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society is leading a project to breed endangered turtle "assurance colonies": captive populations that, if successful, help assure a species' long-term survival, even if goes extinct in the wild. (Elizabeth Kolbert visits several assurance colony breeding programs--the Hail Mary passes of species conservation--in her book "The Sixth Extinction.") In December the society announced the hatching of five Chinese big-headed turtles, among the world's most endangered turtle species.



21 May 13:00

A Wooden Canoe Built By Nick Offerman

by Dave Mosher

Small Boat, Big Job
Offerman built a canoe for its value as a "charismatic human artifact," he says. "In hindsight, it was incredibly ambitious, but I just had the madman's ambition."
Photograph by F. Scott Schafer

The hustle of Hollywood isn’t exactly conducive to hobbies, especially not a mastery of woodworking. Yet actor and comedian Nick Offerman, known for his role as Ron Swanson on Parks and Recreation, snuck in the time to build this 18 foot-long canoe called Lucky Boy. Offerman spent four months crafting the 50-lb. vessel with guidance from Bear Mountain Boats in Canada. He glued together roughly 100 planks of western red cedar, shaped and sanded the hull, and then sealed it with fiberglass cloth and epoxy. He trimmed the boat with seats and gunwales made of sapele mahogany and decks carved from walnut and ebony. Nothing compares to putting a canoe in the water for the first time, says Offerman, who grew up paddling in Illinois and Minnesota. “It feels as though you invented fire,” he says. “You realize that, with the proper hatches and sails, you can take a version of this and circumnavigate the globe.”

Offerman descibes his adventures in carpentry—and offers plenty of humorous life advice—in his book, Paddle Your Own Canoe.

Time to build over evenings and weekends: 4 months

Cost: About $2,000

This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of Popular Science.

21 May 23:28

fuckyeahviralpics: Fully transparent rain forest frog


Fully transparent rain forest frog

20 May 20:21

A Tiny Rabbit Pacemaker That Charges Wirelessly

by Douglas Main

Tiny pacemaker
A tiny pacemaker--like the device on the right--has been used to regulate a live rabbit's heart. On the left, a typically-sized pacemaker.
Stanford University

Scientists have implanted a tiny pacemaker in a rabbit and wirelessly powered it to regulate the animal's heart beat. It's the first time such a device has been powered this way in a living animal, suggesting that the same technique could run pacemakers or other devices in humans. This would be huge, because now pacemakers and other devices have to be removed and re-installed when they run out of batteries, involving risky surgeries.

Without needing bulky batteries, the devices could also become much smaller--the size of a grain of rice, as in the case of this pacemaker. It's further described in a video below from Stanford University, where study author Ada Poon hails. 

The pacemaker was powered by a cellphone battery within a metal plate, held about an inch above the animal's chest. It works by inducing power, with electromagnetic waves, in an energy harvesting coil in the pacemaker, as New Scientist explains: 

Such "near-field energy transmission" was previously considered too weak to power devices that are small or placed deeply in the body. To get around this problem, Poon's team designed the plate to emit electromagnetic radiation in a directed beam towards the implant. They also used the rabbit's own body tissue to help deliver the signal: the radiation is of a high frequency that propagates particularly well in animal tissue, allowing it to pass further into the body without losing much energy into the tissue or causing damage.

It remains to be seen if this would be feasible or healthy for larger devices (which would presumably require more powerful transmitters), or for use in humans, although the scientists claim the electromagnetic waves don't harm the animals--and they are bullish about human applications in the near future.

[New Scientist]

18 May 00:42

probablyahomestuck: m00finjaz: japandreams:         For make...




        For make these dishes, click here



15 May 19:16

Ask Anything: What Would People Eat In A Permanent Space Colony?

by Daniel Engber

Researchers at the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation spent 120 days living as they might on Mars.

Once settled on another planet, colonists would likely start with hydroponic farming, using small-stature or dwarf cultivars that can be tightly packed together. It would make the most sense to plant fast-cycle salad crops first, says Jean Hunter, a professor at Cornell who studies food-processing and waste-management systems for long-term living away from Earth. That means lettuce, radishes, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, and other veggies. Later on, the colonists would move to carbohydrate-heavy crops like sweet potatoes, rice, and wheat, and after that they might plant protein and oil-rich crops, such as soybeans and peanuts.

Consequently, the settlers would end up on a vegan diet, more or less. They could try to cultivate insects, guinea pigs, or other small animals, but caring for these would add to their already enormous workload. “Small-scale agriculture is notoriously inefficient,” Hunter warns. “I worry about the colonists underestimating the amount of human capital needed to grow and process their own food, to the point where everybody becomes a subsistence farmer and they’re toiling all day just to get enough to eat—kind of like our ancestors in America.”

Even if the colonists could figure out a way to grow food for themselves without spending every last minute doing it, and even if they managed to stave off crop disease (which can spread very rapidly in a hydroponic culture), they would still need backup food from home. “For the first four to six months, their crops wouldn’t be ready,” says Hunter. So early arrivals would have to bring a large supply of shelf-stable or prepackaged foods.

Consequently, the settlers would end up on a vegan diet, more or less.

That’s where the development of advanced food technology comes in. Space scientists would need to figure out how to make foods that can last for four or five years inside sealed pouches. Right now, such products rate for less than half that time at most, but new technologies—such as microwave sterilization and high-pressure processing—could extend shelf-life considerably.

What sorts of foods, then, should colonists take with them? At the NASA-funded Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, which ended last August, Hunter and her colleagues provided the crew with both prepackaged entrées and basic ingredients with which to prepare their own meals to determine their preference. She found that participants were much less bored by their food when they had a hand in making it, and that turns out to be important: “You can have something that’s very tasty but then you get tired of it really quickly,” says Hunter. “In these situations, that’s actually not as useful as a food that’s just okay but that you will enjoy at its initial level for a long time.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of Popular Science.

14 May 11:14


by Li

This is a restaurant the world needs.


13 May 12:30

Has The End Of The Banana Arrived?

by Dan Koeppel

Two weeks ago, at a conference in South Africa, scientists met to discuss how to contain a deadly banana disease outbreak in nearby Mozambique, Africa. At fault was a fungus that continues its march around the planet. In recent years, it has spread across Asia and Australia, devastating plants there that bear the signature yellow supermarket fruit.

The international delegation of researchers shared their own approaches to the malady, hoping to arrive at some strategy to insulate Mozambique and the rest of Africa: a continent where bananas are essential to the lives of millions. They left the Cape Town-based meeting with an air of optimism.

Only days after the meeting, however, a devastating new survey of the stricken Mozambique farm was released. Scientists at the conference assumed that the fungus was limited to a single plot. The new report suggested the entire plantation was infested, expanding 125 diseased acres to more than 3,500. All told, 7 million banana plants were doomed to wilt and rot.

“The future looks bleak,” says Altus Viljoen, the South African plant pathologist who organized the conference. "There’s no way they’ll be able to stop any further spread if they continue to farm.” Worse, he says, the disease's rapid spread endangers banana crops beyond Mozambique’s borders.

A banana production line in Mozambique.
Fen Beed
The story of the African farm is the story of a threat to the world’s largest fruit crop. Commercially, bananas generate $8 billion annually and, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, more than 400 million people rely on the fruit as their primary source of calories. Though more bananas are grown in Asia, Africans depend heavily on the crop; in countries like Rwanda and Uganda, for example, average banana consumption is about 500 pounds per person annually, or 20 times that of the typical American. If the bananas vanish, people starve.

I originally reported on the malady that’s now infecting the Mozambique plantation in the August 2005 print edition of Popular Science. In that story, which is still relevant today, I described a fungus, commonly known as “Panama Disease” but scientifically termed Fusarium oxysporum f.sp. cubensis Tropical Race 4 (or “Foc-TR4”). It infects the roots of banana plants, moves upward through the xylem, and clogs the flow of sap, causing leaves to wilt and the plant to rot.

When I reported on the disease, which was and remains incurable, it had spread only to a few Asian nations, including Taiwan and Indonesia. But it soon reached the Chinese mainland, and then jumped across thousands of miles of open ocean to appear in Australia, where it devastated the banana industry in the Darwin region.

The most astonishing thing is that this has happened before, with a breed of banana introduced to America and Europe in the early 20th century. Called the Gros Michel, it was entirely different from the kind of banana we enjoy today and made the fortunes of Chiquita and Dole. These companies created an agricultural business model based on monoculture, whose singular focus resembles the fast food industry more than traditional farming.

The “Big Mike” cultivar soon began succumbing to a variant of Fusarium now known as “Race 1.” By 1960, the breed was functionally extinct. Its replacement is today’s supermarket banana, called the Cavendish. From the start banana marketers considered it an inferior product—less flavorful and more perishable. Yet facing bankruptcy in the wake of the Gros Michel’s disappearance, they adopted it at the last minute to save their industry.

I became so fascinated with bananas that my original article became a book in 2008: Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World. Since then, I’ve traveled the world writing about bananas, learning about how important, delicious, and threatened they are. I attended the South Africa conference, officially titled the “Regional Meeting To Develop A Strategy To Mitigate Foc TR4 In Africa,” and was impressed with the organization and commitment exhibited by the working group.

Then the bad news came.


Mozambique is not considered prime banana territory. The food is mostly a commercial crop here, rather than a staple. But it is well placed if one wanted to start an export business; bananas could be shipped north, to Middle Eastern and European markets. At least that was the plan when the now-stricken crops were planted in 2008.

The funding came from Chiquita, the world’s largest and oldest banana producer. Expectations were high. Operations in the nation could soon account for as much as 30 percent of the company’s $2 billion supermarket banana business, according to then-CEO Fernando Aguirre. The plantation would keep world banana supplies and prices stable, and would also provide huge local benefits, adding as many as 3,000 jobs to the regional economy. In 2010, Chiquita left Mozambique, claiming that it couldn’t get high enough quality fruit from the operation, and that northbound shipments were too threatened by piracy along the African coast.

A Mozambique banana plantation.
Altus Viljoen

One big question is how the disease actually arrived in Mozambique. At the conference I attended, participants offered two theories. One is that Philippine workers who’d arrived to help build the plantation inadvertently brought it in; the malady is so virulent that a single clump of dirt on a shoe or a tool can lead to continent-wide infection. Philippine banana growers have been struggling with Foc-TR4 since the 1990s, and the workers in Mozambique were employed by Chiquita management and then by a company called Matanuska, which took over when the American banana company left.

Another idea is that the disease was waiting in the soil all along, prior to the arrival of bananas in Mozambique. Scientists think this happened in Malaysia when Cavendish were planted there in the late 1980s, leading to one of the earliest outbreaks of Foc-TR4. Researchers are now analyzing the strain of fungus found in Mozambique to see if it shares genetic markers with samples gathered elsewhere. (Viljoen strongly believes those tests will show that the disease came from the Philippines.)

Whatever the origin, it is certain that the new plantation was poorly equipped to handle the fungus. On multiple plots in the Mozambique farms, plants were sharing water drainage facilities, a practice that might allow contaminated water to spread from one plot to another. Likewise, infection from common irrigation sources was one of the primary ways the Gros Michel version of Panama Disease spread in the mid-20th century.

Another likely vector for the spread of the disease was local people walking across the farmland on their way home, says Viljoen. At April’s Cape Town meeting, Jack Dwyer, CEO of the Mozambique plantation venture, acknowledged that more than 2,500 people entered and exited the farm each day, along with 100 vehicles.

An infected banana plant.
Altus Viljoen

All this has made the banana industry take notice. Just five years ago, Chiquita’s Aguirre told the Cincinnati Enquirer, “We believe that [Panama Disease] is a very limited threat and would take many, many years to spread, even if it does move out of Asia.” Following the news from Mozambique, Chiquita took a more realistic stance. Spokesperson Ed Loyd told me that, “It would be foolish not to pay attention,” and that Panama Disease represents a long-term danger to the industry. (The disease has also recently been identified in the Middle East, with crops stricken in both Jordan and Oman.)

Loyd also confirmed that Chiquita is now researching a replacement banana for the Cavendish. One possibility is a modified version of the fruit developed in Taiwan; the “GCTCV 219” is sweeter than standard Cavendish, and takes a little longer to harvest, but is highly resistant to Panama Disease. The variety is currently being tested in the Philippines and Australia, and it has the market advantage of not being a GMO banana; the technique used to develop it involves “somoclonal variation,” or hand-selection and rebreeding of hardier varieties. (The problem with GMO bananas isn’t the fruit or the technology, it’s that most consumers wouldn’t buy them, banana marketers say.) Other possibilities include alternate breeds. Those would require new packaging technology, but the industry overcame that obstacle during the original Gros Michel changeover. Or, if consumer and regulatory resistance breaks down, a transgenic banana, perhaps crossed with Fusarium-resistant peppers.

The best solution, banana scientists have told me, is variety. Turning the commercial banana crop from a monoculture (in which every Cavendish plant is essentially a clone) to one with multiple resistant breeds would help insulate plantations against disease and also bring some really delicious fruit to consumers. The Cavendish, I can tell you from experience, is a lousy tasting banana compared to just about everything else; in India, where 600 banana varieties are grown, Cavendish is derisively called “the hotel banana.”

Does all this mean the great "bananapocalypse" or "bananageddon" is here? Not yet. But it is getting closer. Currently, about 45 percent of world banana production is Cavendish, and the global export of the crop is growing by about 7 percent annually. As its monoculture spreads, the threat to both livelihoods and lives grows. (There is some good news for subsistence crops: Recent tests of Africa’s most-consumed varieties indicate they could be resistant to Foc-TR4, although researchers say more studies are required.)

For Americans worried about whether they’ll continue to have slices of banana floating in their cereal bowls, the question is when the disease will hit Latin America, which grows the bananas we consume. Mozambique brings disturbing news on that front: Farm managers there didn’t just get assistance from the Philippines, but also from Costa Rica and several other Central American nations. Those workers moved repeatedly between their home countries and Africa through 2011.

With an incubation period of about two to three years, it is possible that the same mechanism that likely caused the African outbreak—infected dirt, carried inadvertently—is already at work in our hemisphere. “The workers who set up those plantations are now back home,” says Randy Ploetz, the Florida-based plant pathologist who first identified Foc-TR4 in the 1980s. “So if we assume it is fairly easy to move this thing and soil from wherever it is—Southeast Asia or Jordan or Mozambique—then it is possible it is already in Latin America. Only time will tell.”