Evolution and Synthetics

An amazing scientific announcement has recently occurred, we have been able to show that synthetic DNA, XNA, is capable of evolving. This is interesting for several reasons. First, it’s just more evidence of evolution, which should be a rather no brainer at this point. Second, it shows that there are other materials that can function similarly to DNA and RNA. Finally, we can make these structures and they will behave in a similar fashion to DNA and RNA.

If we can create something that evolves under stress, it indicates that evolution is still extremely robust. If this type of material did not evolve, it would have made scientists look at both that material itself and check a few things. First, would we expect this material to evolve. Second, if yes, why doesn’t it evolve. If we are developing a material that is expected to mimic DNA/RNA, it is likely that we would expect it to evolve in a similar fashion. If it doesn’t evolve, then this could have serious consequences. This would not disprove evolution, as DNA/RNA both evolve, it would indicate that either we have the wrong material or that only DNA/RNA can evolve. It would explain why only DNA/RNA have been found on earth and not any other type of xNA material.

Since this material can evolve it leads to interesting questions itself. Did evolution occur  between DNA/RNA and other xNA’s? Did the RNA/DNA combination beat out every other stain of xNA’s? This would be interesting to understand. If RNA/DNA did evolve because it was better suited to Earth’s early environment does that mean that our current environment still suits it best? Could we evolve completely new life forms based on these structures? Only time and more research will allow us to answer these questions. But we do know that these new strains could allow us to develop treatments and other solutions to biological problems.

One way we could answer these questions is if we discover alien life that is based off of non-RNA/DNA combination. This could be in the form of anything from bacteria to full blown organisms. At this point, it is more likely we’ll find a bacteria life form based on another XNA than anything else as they are capable of surviving exposed space transportation, such as on an asteroid.

The fact that we’re able to create XNA is an amazing accomplishment. It indicates that we understand biochemicals required for life to an extent that we are able to create new enzymes that mimic RNA/DNA. We also understand that the most important metric for this experiment is not the fact that we could make a stable XNA, but that it must evolve. A stable or static XNA would not be interesting as it would have no ability to adapt in an environment where there is competition. The ability to change as the conditions change is what separates RNA/DNA from other proteins and enzymes. Only the best combinations are able to change and develop over time.

I’m excited to see how these changes will impact us. I think there are some significant long term implications for this, but at this time I’m not sure what they are. The fact that we’re capable of doing this is an incredible step.

Book Review: Idea Factory, the history of Bell Labs

Yea, I know I’ve just been doing book reviews.

This book was amazing. I had no idea of all the different things that Bell Labs produced from the mid 1920’s until the 1970’s and later. The book focused on the high point of Bell Labs innovation run. It followed the career of several, at the time, famous and prominent scientists that were employed at Bell Labs. Please such as Mervin Kelley (vastly improve the vacuum tube and was a long running director, VP and President of the Labs), William Shockley (inventor of the transistor) Brattian (inventor of a different kind of transistor), Claude Shannon (inventor of the field of Information Science), John Pierce (inventor of passive and active satellite). These there were many others, however, they each had significant impacts on how our modern society works.

The book does an excellent job in explaining some of the basics of how the research was conducted, what work needed to be done to make it work on an experimental level, the method of transferring the invention into innovation or a full product and the goal of each of these inventions. Mervin Kelley was famous for saying that to implement a change in AT&T’s network the new technology must be “better or cheaper or both.” This prevented a great deal of frivolous technologies from being implemented into the telephone network. Additionally, this was required to ensure that AT&T was always able to work towards reducing rates for subscribers as they were a “natural” monopoly.

This was a time when research was done to ensure that the network would be operational for 30 years without malfunction. This required huge investments in quality control and required that additional costs were built into the network for redundancies and protection. In fact Statistical Process Control was invented at Bell Labs to ensure proper quality.

How did all of this work? Well, there were two factors going on here. First, Bell Labs was able to hire the best and brightest to work on interesting problems. Second, the scientists had a continually evolving project that always needed more innovation. These two combined with a freedom to explore allowed the scientists to delve into basic and applied research. In some cases they did not know how or why something would work, but felt that it would improve the quality of the telephone network.

One of the goals of AT&T was to create a coast to coast network with universal service. This required the company to figure out how to address signal decay due to distances over several miles. To address this the company developed the vacuum tube repeater, which significantly increased the distance a voice call could travel. The manufacturing of a tube was extremely difficult and expensive. Bell Labs felt that there had to be a different way to create a repeater. Over the next 20 years they investigated off and on (with a break for WWII) how to make semiconductors work as a repeater. Bell Labs was capable of making this sort of investment because it had a guaranteed revenue stream and a mandate to continually improve the network. These two together allowed the Labs to do work that they otherwise would not have been able to investigate.

This is a very different model for innovation than we currently have in any organization. Universities come close, but they fall short in the fact that the professors are continually required to apply for more money and seek permission from someone to pursue their work. Bell Labs was much more relaxed about this.

This innovation method is also very different than some of the historic events in the US, such as the Manhattan Project or the Moon Landing. Those were single goals which allowed the focus of a great group of minds.There was never any intention of keeping those minds together for the next big project. Bell Labs had the ability to do this.

There are some organizations that should be able to do something like this. The National Labs are one, but there’s no direct business need so even this doesn’t exactly work. An organization like TNO in the Netherlands, which focuses more on practical matters could increase the amount of basic research they conduct in various different areas. TNO is structured differently than the National Labs in the US, because they are expected to work closely with both industry and universities. This gives each of the groups a strong business focus and could serve as a pipeline from basic research into business activities for the companies that work with TNO. However, at this point TNO does not perform these activities.

I give this book a 4.5/5. It was extremely well written, well organized and dealt with some amazing subject matters.

Good Byes are never easy

On Saturday I had a going away party in Eindhoven. I’m moving back to Austin tomorrow. I have made some absolutely amazing friends. Friends that have expanded what I think about the world, how the world works and about countries that I never thought I’d make friends from.

It’s been an interesting experience. First living with 7 roommates from all over the world. Walk down stairs and understanding nothing because everyone is speaking Spanish or Urdu. I would then go to class and during the breaks or after class I’d be surrounded by Dutch. With all this going on you’d think I would have done a better job picking up the languages. I know a bit of Dutch, enough to say simple things like “Ik spreek geen Nederlands” or “Spreek je Engels.” Dutch is a hard language to learn because, well it’s a hard language and because nearly the entire country is fluent in English to a level that I can have an in depth discussion about nearly anything.

My friend Greg was telling me that there’s something of a psychological theory related to how Ex-pats adjust to an area they live in. He says that it’s like a parabola. You start out really excited and happy, everything is new and you’re learning a lot. Eventually, the things that were new and interesting become frustrating and just different enough to make it desirable to go home or to be surrounded by people from your culture. It’s easy to understand why there are enclaves of people from the same culture. My Colombian and Mexican friends had the similarity of their languages and a few people that bridged their cultures. I didn’t have anyone from my culture that I was close with, and seeing the closeness of my friends it some times made it even harder because I was essentially adapting to two different cultures at the same time.

During this time, I had to do some growing and try to figure out how to deal with it. I of course continued to throw myself into the two cultures by hanging out with my Dutch friends and my Latin American friends during my first year here. Eventually, after hitting bottom you begin to adjust and accept things are different and figure out ways to work within the system. Things definitely got easier when Brian and Greg moved over here as they are from the US.

I’ve learned so much while being here. Through my education, from my friends from different cultures and just being in a totally different type of place. I’ve learned that I can adapt to truly different and stressful situations. It made me appreciate what I have back in Austin and I think that I’ll be a better friend and husband than I would have been otherwise. I’m more patient and less prone to say rash things. I think that I’ve grown a lot and I can’t help but say it’s because of the support of my friends here and Davianne back home.

Good byes are hard, especially when you know how much of an impact on your life your friends have made. I’d like to thank you all for being in my life and I look forward to continuing to keep in touch. Hopefully I’ll see you in the US and the next time I come to Europe. I also look forward to visiting your countries too!

Denouncing Rush

My friend sent me this email. If women’s rights matter to you, then please read on.
Sandra Fluke is a classmate of mine.  You may have heard of her.  She’s an inspiring woman who worked with victims of domestic violence before coming to law school on a public interest scholarship.  She is the woman who was supposed to testify before congress on birth control but was blocked by republicans.  This was the congressional hearing about birth control in which no woman was allowed to testify.  The statement she had planned to make was later publicized.  Rush Limbaugh completely misrepresented it, called her a slut, and demanded that she post sex tapes online.
Even if you do not believe that birth control should be accessible for contraceptive reasons, or even life-saving medical reasons, I hope you do find it unacceptable for Limbaugh to defame a woman and lie about her testimony. Limbaugh is attempting to bully women out of speaking and create positive publicity for himself. Sign this petition if you want it to backfire on him.  http://dccc.org/pages/denounce-rush
Please forward this to anyone you think would be interested in signing.

Biting the hands that feeds it

Yesterday I read an article which explained that a Republican Congressman berated the head of the National Science Foundation for high gas prices. This is pretty distressing because it shows a clear lack of understanding of the goals of the NSF, the role of industry in innovation, consumers and the policies the Republican party and the US government has in place in regard to fuel usage.

First of all, the NSF is an organization that funds cutting edge research that expands the frontier of science. The goal is not to pick winners at that early of a stage. Picking a technology specifically to reduce the cost of fuel would be that. The goal is to pick the best ideas in a broad range of topics and fund several ideas within the same topic to get competing technologies and research groups. They groups can look at the same problem with a different perspective and lead to very different results, which together could lead to a huge break through (if they each don’t get their own break through or the same one). The goal is to create variety. I’m sure there are tons of projects that are focused on creating alternative fuels and increasing the efficiency of our combustion engines. However, the research isn’t going to be commercializable for 10 to 15 years. That’s just how long it takes. The research we’re funding today will be driving our economy through the next decade. 
If the Congressman wants a better target to go after, he should look to the car companies. There has been research for a large number of years on engine technology, however not all of it has been used to actually improve efficiency. Some times it’s used to increase the power of the vehicle. They do this because that’s what the consumer wants. Americans love their big powerful cars. There’s no reason why my mother in-law NEEDS to drive the extended Tahoe, but she does – she feels safer in her “Battle wagon.” However, the vehicle gets very low gas mileage, which of course is a double whammy when the prices increase. Huge tank and high prices make it expensive. The more gas the vehicle uses the higher the prices will be going. In Europe the gas prices Americans are complaining about are absurdly low. In the Netherlands it’s something like $8/gallon, around $3 of that is in taxes. However, in those countries there are much more fuel efficient vehicles because they have to be. Many of those countries don’t really want people to be driving.
The same car manufacturers that complain about putting minimum fuel economy standards on cars are able to meet higher standards in Europe. The US government could easily play a role in increasing the standards for new vehicles. They may not be doing enough. Continually increasing the standards with higher gas prices will increase the incentives for manufacturing those vehicles. Especially if the US government provides a customer for those cars. This would ensure that the car companies will be able to sell a minimum number of the vehicles without fear of a complete flop of the technology.