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Planting Seeds of Hope & Despair

Humans, they’re nutritious and delicious.

We often think of ourselves, humans I mean, as top of the food chain, kings of the world. And, in some respects, that fiction can be justified. In others it cannot. I have written before how we’re not even the only creatures evolving into sentience on this planet. But we must remember that we are fragile creatures. Evolution has made us dependent on many variables. The temperature of the world affects us directly, we rely on everything around us for food and shelter, we contribute very little – ecologically speaking – to the benefit of the world, and we could easily be eliminated from the face of the Earth with a single catastrophe. So, there’s your feel good thoughts for the moment. But we humans are also resourceful creatures. We look for new ways to protect ourselves and advance our species. We are willing to take risks other species can’t envision. And, sometimes, we create amazing things. Other times … not so much.

We’ll start with something harmless, and beneficial, so you’re not stunned into helplessness and drooling on your cornflakes.

Scientists at MIT have created glowing trees. The Space Academy has the story.

Roads of the future could be lit by glowing trees instead of streetlamps, thanks to a breakthrough in creating bioluminescent plants. Experts injected specialized nanoparticles into the leaves of a watercress plant, which caused it to give off a dim light for nearly four hours. This could solve lots of problems.

The chemical involved, which produced enough light to read a book by, is the same as is used by fireflies to create their characteristic shine. To create their glowing plants, engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) turned to an enzyme called luciferase. Luciferase acts on a molecule called luciferin, causing it to emit light.

Another molecule called Co-enzyme A helps the process along by removing a reaction byproduct that can inhibit luciferase activity. The MIT team packaged each of these components into a different type of nanoparticle carrier.

The nanoparticles help them to get to the right part of the plant and also prevent them from building to concentrations that could be toxic to the plants. The result was a watercress plant that functioned like a desk lamp.

Researchers believe with further tweaking, the technology could also be used to provide lights bright enough to illuminate a workspace or even an entire street, as well as low-intensity indoor lighting.

Michael Strano, professor of chemical engineering at MIT and the senior author of the study, said: ‘The vision is to make a plant that will function as a desk lamp — a lamp that you don’t have to plug in. The light is ultimately powered by the energy metabolism of the plant itself. Our work very seriously opens up the doorway to streetlamps that are nothing but treated trees, and to indirect lighting around homes.’

Bioluminescence has many possible uses. Organic lighting could easily travel in space ships providing a source of oxygen as well as lighting. It could provide rural roads a cheap, and safe, source of illumination so drivers would not need to use their brights and possibly, albeit temporarily, blind oncoming cars.

So that’s nice.

Speaking of oxygen, as I was a moment ago, it’s one of the things that climate change is threatening. While a remote threat at the moment an increase in plants’ CO2 levels could spell doom for those of us who don’t breathe CO2. Combined with continued deforestation programs (that means cutting down trees and replacing them with asphalt, etc.) there could come a tipping point where we might not be able to breathe the air. And that’s a serious setback if you have plans on living.

Tanya Lewis, over at Live Science, says that those wacky scientist folks have come up with a way to turn CO2 into good old oxygen without needing plants.

Even though scientists think plants produced most of the oxygen present on Earth, they suspected some oxygen may have existed before photosynthetic organisms arose, said Cheuk-Yiu Ng, a physical chemist at the University of California, Davis, and co-author of the study published today (Oct. 2) in the journal Science.

But, it was thought that the planet’s oxygen (O2) formed from two oxygen atoms colliding and combining on some surface, not because the oxygen molecules split from carbon dioxide (CO2), Ng said.

When light breaks apart CO2, the molecule normally splits into carbon monoxide (CO) and an oxygen atom (O). One theory suggested carbon dioxide could potentially be stripped into molecular oxygen (O2) and carbon (C) instead, but “nobody had ever detected” such a process, Ng told Live Science.

Ng and his colleagues built a one-of-a-kind instrument to split up carbon dioxide, using ultraviolet light in a vacuum. The device consists of two lasers — one to split the CO2, and one to detect the fragments produced.

“This machine is unique in the world,” Ng said.

When the researchers shone the first laser on the carbon dioxide, the second laser detected O2 molecules and carbon atoms, suggesting a small amount of carbon dioxide (about 5 percent) was turned into oxygen. Though small, that’s enough to show that it’s possible to produce oxygen from CO2 by a nonbiological process, Ng said.

The findings reveal a possible way oxygen entered the atmosphere of Earth and other planets, the researchers said. This has implications on the search for extraterrestrial life, suggesting that merely detecting oxygen in the atmosphere of another planet is not enough to signify the presence of life, Ng said.

Finally, the researchers hinted that it may be possible to use this technique to make oxygen in space or on other planets. But first, more studies are needed to verify the fundamentals of how this reaction occurs, the scientists said.

One reason the experiment hadn’t been done before is because of the difficulty of creating intense vacuum ultraviolet light, Ng said. One way is to use a particle accelerator called a synchrotron, but the laser in Ng’s lab is 10,000 to 1 million times brighter than those produced by existing synchrotrons, he said.

While nowhere near being practical at the moment, a five percent return is technically useless, it’s an amazing step in the right direction. Now, while scientists look at tech like this as a great way to terraform a planet (like Venus), it could also be a great way to save ours. If they manage to shrink the size of the laser unit, an engineering issue only at this point, this tech could also make wonderful re-breathing suits for divers, astronauts, and anyone who works near hazardous waste. We’re all hoping that last description doesn’t end up applying to our whole world.

All of the threats I’ve listed seem remote and, possibly, hyperbolic, so let’s take a look at one real world consequence of human actions.

The death of chocolate.

CBS (Denver) spoke to the research team that assembled the data and came away scared.

According to a report from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the changing temperatures around the world will make growing cacao plants nearly impossible within the next 30 years.

“More than 90 per cent of the global cocoa crop is produced by smallholders on subsistence farms with unimproved planting material,” British researcher Doug Hawkins told the Daily Mail.

The chocolate-producing plants only grow in specific locations that are within 20 degrees to the north or south of the equator. The plants thrive in the rainforest because of its stable temperatures with high humidity, heavy rain, rich soil, and protection from wind. NOAA claims that the effects of climate change will gradually push the perfect climate for growing cacao into higher and less suitable areas.

Researchers add that over 89 percent of the current growing areas for chocolate will not be suitable for the crops by 2050 because of the lessening humidity around the equator. In an attempt to save chocolate, scientists at the University of California are teaming with candy industry giant Mars to change the genes of the plant.

Using the gene-editing machine CRISPR, the team hopes to make cacao plants more resilient to the changing weather conditions around the world.

“We’re trying to go all in here,” Mars’ chief sustainability officer Barry Parkin told Business Insider. “There are obviously commitments the world is leaning into but, frankly, we don’t think we’re getting there fast enough collectively.”

Okay, maybe you can live without chocolate. I know many who would disagree with you, but that’s not really the point. If chocolate dies then a big chunk of the earth’s ecosystem, i.e., the rain forests, will either be dead or dying. Rain forests, which look really cool on TV, also provide a large portion of our planet’s oxygen.

That pesky stuff that’s been permeating this whole thread.

We need it, in case you missed the memo.

But, okay, worst case scenario, you’re dead. Now what?

Not to worry fragile sapien, science has that covered.

Kind of.

Janey Tracey, at Outer Places, reports that there may now be a way to bring people back from the dead.

Could we regenerate brains in clinically dead patients? A health watchdog organization has approved a new trial that will attempt to revive technically dead humans using their own stem cells.

The trial will be run by biotech company Bioquark, which is primarily focused on developing “combinatorial biologics” that get to the heart of disease reversal rather than just treating the symptoms. They believe that stem cells can be used as a kind of “reset button” for the body, erasing cell damage and stimulating tissue regeneration. They claim that their research could potentially lead to “complex tissue and organ regeneration, disease reversion, and even biological age reversal.”

In this study, twenty patients who are declared braindead (which is considered clinical death, so long as the patient is only kept alive through life support), will be subjected to a series of treatments, including the injection of brain stem cells and peptides into the brain. The researchers hypothesize that the stem cells will take their cue from surrounding cells and differentiate into fully functional brain cells, a process that has been seen in other animals, such as salamanders that regrow limbs.

“This represents the first trial of its kind and another step towards the eventual reversal of death in our lifetime,” Dr Ira Pastor, the CEO of Bioquark, told The Telegraph. “To undertake such a complex initiative, we are combining biologic regenerative medicine tools with other existing medical devices typically used for stimulation of the central nervous system, in patients with other severe disorders of consciousness.

We hope to see results within the first two to three months.”

The first stage, since it has such a small and non-random sample size, will just be a proof-of-concept. The cocktail of stem cells and peptides will be administered bi-weekly over the course of six weeks.

Obviously this research is still so new no one knows what will come of it. When you do a deep dive into the commentaries around various science sites you come away with the basic notion that any such person brought back will be nothing more than a vegetable.

Granted, an oxygen breathing, CO2 emitting, vegetable (the opposite of the kind of vegetable the planet needs), but a vegetable nonetheless.

More likely they won’t really accomplish their goal, at least not in this round, but the knowledge they discover could benefit humanity in ways we can barely imagine. For example, if they discover that our neuro-pathways are recoverable then that’s the first step to loading a human brain into a cybernetic being. If they discover they’re not, and there doesn’t appear to be a way to make that happen, they could still find sections of the brain which can be recovered leading to cures for diseases in the living.

There is a lot which can be gained from this research. But, just to be clear, you need to keep dying off your To-Do list for a while longer before you can take advantage of it.

Of course, there’s one fatal flaw in your plan. If the oxygen levels dip enough to kill all human life, and a whole lot more, then the human doctors you need to bring you back will be dead too.

So that sucks.


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