Tropical tree microbiome discovered in Panama

Human skin and gut microbes influence processes from digestion to disease resistance. Despite the fact that tropical forests are the most biodiverse terrestrial ecosystems on the planet, more is known about belly-button bacteria than bacteria on trees in the tropics. Smithsonian scientists and colleagues working on Panama's Barro Colorado Island discovered that small leaf samples from a single tree were home to more than 400 different kinds of bacteria. The combined sample from 57 tree species contained more than 7,000 different kinds.

Bacteria in tropical forests may also play a vital role, protecting leaves against pathogens and even affecting the ability of forests to respond to climate change.

"Just as people are realizing that microbes carried by humans can have an influence on a person's health -- positive or negative -- we hope to discover what bacteria on tree leaves can tell us about the health of a forest," said S. Joseph Wright, a Smithsonian scientist and co-author of the new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In contrast to a previous study of bacteria on leaves in a temperate forest where different leaves had different bacteria, there was a core group of species of common bacteria present on leaves of nearly all of the species sampled in Panama. Just as on human skin, many of the bacteria on tropical tree leaves were Actinobacteria and Proteobacteria.

The researchers, from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, University of Quebec, University of Arizona, University of Oregon, University of California -- Los Angeles and Santa Fe Institute, also looked for relationships between the composition of bacterial communities on leaves and other plant characteristics.

Many bacteria were associated with certain functional traits such as leaf thickness, wood density or leaf nitrogen content, characteristics that directly impact tree growth, survival and reproduction.

The relationships between many of the bacteria and tree species they sampled were ancient, going back to the ancestors of both the bacteria and the trees as they evolved in tandem.

"Our ability to use molecular techniques like 16S ribosomal RNA gene sequencing to characterize nearly all of the bacteria on a leaf is going to make it possible to see how very different members of forest communities interact," said Wright. The Smithsonian forest ecologist and his colleagues hope to collaborate with researchers at the 60 Forest Global Earth Observatory sites coordinated by the Smithsonian's Center for Tropical Forest Science to compare interactions at different sites and under different environmental conditions.

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The above story is based on materials provided by Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute . Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Survey Says: America’s Rudest Drivers Are in Idaho

Idaho. The funny-shaped northwestern state is usually associated only with potatoes and… well, potatoes, I guess, but now we have a new stereotype: ungentlemanly drivers.

A survey by asked two thousand motorists which states they felt had the rudest drivers. To be sure, their answers were influenced by geography: New Hampshire drivers hate Massholes and New Yorkers aren’t fond of New Jerseyans, for example. Looking at common causes for complaints—drivers talking on the phone, tailgating, not signaling, weaving through lanes, and speeding—it’s clear “rude” is a polite synonym for “crappy,” or at least “obnoxious.”

Blue states on the East Coast are heavily represented in the rudest driver rankings, with Washington D.C., New York, Massachusetts, Delaware, Vermont, and New Jersey all in the top 10. North Dakota, Maine, and New Hampshire are listed as the nicest states for drivers. Maybe there’s something in that chilly, rural air that makes people kinder behind the wheel.

As for the Idahoans? One driver quoted in the survey said the state’s drivers “feel just fine taking their time, driving 5 to 10 miles an hour under the limit,” which would surely enrage the leadfoots in Arizona, where the Idahoans are most hated.

Feel free to take to the comments to discuss the survey’s results.

Homepage image: Stuart Dee/Getty

With Minecraft Acquisition, Microsoft Reveals Its Desperation


Jim Merithew/WIRED

Microsoft just acquired Minecraft in a deal valued at $2.5 billion, and at first blush, that seems like money well spent. The popular game, a way of building your own virtual worlds, can not only feed the company’s Xbox game console, but also turn Microsoft into a real player in the world of mobile games, across both smartphones and tablets.

And yet, judging from the reports about the strategy behind the deal, it also reveals a certain amount of desperation from the tech giant.

Last week, both the New York Times and Reuters reported that the real reason Microsoft wants Minecraft is to bring the hit game onto its Windows Phone operating systems and into its mobile app store, the Windows Store. That too may seem like a good move. But it shows just how far behind Microsoft has fallen in the race for the hearts and minds of mobile users, and it raises many questions about whether it can climb back into this race. Ultimately, the company is so far behind, this $2.5 billion deal may not bear as much fruit as Microsoft would like.

One of the main problems with Microsoft’s Windows Phone operating system—an OS quite far behind in terms of market share—is that it’s plagued by a dearth of applications compared to Android and iOS. Many popular mobile apps, such as Instagram, arrived on Windows Phone much later than other platforms. Others, such as Dropbox, Flipboard and Snapchat, still aren’t officially available for Windows Phone. It’s something of a chicken-and-egg problem for the company. Customers don’t want to buy Windows handhelds unless the apps they want are available. But developers don’t want to spend time developing for the platform if the users aren’t there. That has left Microsoft to pick up much of the slack on its own. Earlier this year, for instance, it built its own YouTube client for the OS.

If Microsoft gets Minecraft on Windows Phone, it could help attract users to its phones and tablets, especially younger people for whom the lack of the game would be a deal breaker. The trouble is that it’s only a small step in closing the “app gap,” and the fact that it had to acquire Mojang to bring the game to its mobile operating system doesn’t bode well. While it’s true that Apple and Google sometimes acquire companies for the exclusive use of their technologies, they needn’t buy a company just to force its developers to build a version for their platforms.

Because Microsoft is now so far behind in mobile—where so much of the gaming industry is moving—it must walk a rather fine line if this acquisition is to ultimately pay off. In a way, it would behoove the company to turn Minecraft into something that is only available on Microsoft platforms, shamelessly trying to drive people to its own hardware. But then it risks alienating its existing fan base, who are already skeptical about the acquisition.

Buying a game studio and making its products exclusive to a single platform is par for the course for both Microsoft and the larger game industry. Microsoft acquired Bungie, the company behind the Xbox’s flagship title Halo, in 2000 and turned it into an exclusive property. Sony does much the same, snapping game studios to bring new titles to the PlayStation exclusively. Microsoft could simply draw from this old playbook. It could leave the existing game in tact, but then publish sequels and spin-offs exclusive to Microsoft platforms.

But this is about more than just game consoles. The trouble is that, whereas the Xbox One is a very much a viable alternative to competing devices, Windows Phone is not—at least not today. In the end, limiting mobile use of a new Minecraft to Microsoft phones may do more harm than good. If the company wants Minecraft to thrive on Xbox, it might have no choice but to offer it on iPhones and Android devices. With so much game play moving onto phones, the balance of power has shifted. And not in Microsoft’s favor.

Strategic self-sabotage? MRSA inhibits its own growth

Scientists at the University of Western Ontario have uncovered a bacterial mystery. Against all logic, the most predominant strain of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in North American produces an enzyme that degrades skin secretions into compounds that are toxic to itself. The research is published online ahead of print in the Journal of Bacteriology.

S. aureus is a normal commensal bacterium that benignly inhabits around 30 percent of the human population, in the nasal passages and on the skin. Yet it can become opportunistic. As such, it represents a major, growing public health threat now comparable to HIV, tuberculosis, and viral hepatitis. A particularly hypervirulent strain of MRSA, USA300, has become the predominant strain in both the community and in hospitals across North America.

Recent studies have indicated that USA300's emergence and rapid spread were due at least in part, to enhanced ability to abide on human skin, a skill which has been traced to a gene that confers resistance to toxic polyamines on the skin. That gene is absent from all other S. aureus strains.

That aside, the skin is not exactly a hospitable environment. To S. aureus, sebum, a waxy or oily substance secreted by the sebaceous glands in the skin, is a witch's brew of free fatty acids and other bacterial poisons. Sebum also contains triglycerides, to keep the skin from drying out.

The mystery involves the production by all strains of S. aureus of a lipase enzyme, SAL2, that snips these innocuous triglycerides into more of the antimicrobial free fatty acids.

"In previous work, SAL2… was identified as one of just seven secreted proteins that was universally produced by 63 diverse strains of S. aureus and, as such, it is unlikely that S. aureus would have evolved to maintain abundant production of SAL2 if it did not confer a substantial benefit to the bacterium," the investigators write, adding that this is especially true for the USA300 strain of community-acquired methicillin resistant S. aureus (CA-MRSA).

In the study, the investigators engineered strains of CA-MRSA that could not make SAL2 lipase, and compared, in vitro, how the mutant and the wildtype responded to triglycerides. The mutants grew well in the presence of triglycerides.

"But in the case of the wildtype, the activity of SAL2 lipase produced high concentrations of fatty acids that inhibited bacterial growth," says corresponding author David E. Heinrichs, of the University of Western Ontario, London.

That seemingly illogical result is driving further research, says Heinrichs. "Our continued efforts are directed toward finding out why these bacteria have evolved a growth-inhibiting system of releasing large amounts of fatty acids from skin secretions."

Somehow, the investigators suggest in their conclusion, the evolutionary conservation of ample production of SAL2 lipase's activity must be helping the bacterium to colonize and persist on human skin. But they hint at the difficulty of determining how it works when they write that a number of different models will be needed to examine persistence and virulence not only on the skin, but in abscesses beneath the skin, and in bacteremia. Some of those studies are already underway.

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The above story is based on materials provided by American Society for Microbiology . Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Technological leap in treating pcb contamination in the environment: Three new bacteria could break down pcb

A team of researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) Faculty of Engineering have developed a novel approach that could greatly enhance the effectiveness of destroying polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the environment. They discovered three powerful bacteria from a genus called Dehalococcoides which can degrade PCBs. In addition, the researchers also developed an effective method of culturing these PCB dechlorinators in large quantities to enhance their degradation efficiency.

Working with A*STAR's Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS), the team was able to identify the functional genes responsible for breaking down PCBs. With these research findings, it is now possible to design and engineer methods which can rid our environment of harmful PCBs more effectively. Their findings were recently published in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

PCB contamination and challenges posed to environment

PCBs are synthetic organic chemical compounds of chlorine and biphenyl. They have been widely used as coolant fluids in many electrical products. However, they are toxic and exposure to PCBs has been known to show symptoms almost immediately. Though PCBs are no longer used (they have been banned since the 1970s), they are virtually indestructible and can possibly remain in the environment forever. Hence they continue to contaminate rivers, lakes and harbours worldwide, posing a threat to human and ecosystem health.

There have only been seven known enzymes associated with Dehalococcoides found to have confirmed function on chlorinated compounds. The NUS-GIS research team is proud to add the three new bacteria to the list -- each with distinct specificities.

An in-situ microbial detoxification strategy, which involves applying microbes directly to break down (dechlorinate) PCBs on-site, would be very effective for PCB bioremediation. However, these microbes are extremely hard to culture, hence limiting efforts to characterise them for such applications.

Currently, the only treatment is capping or dredging and landfilling the PCBs. An example is the ongoing SuperFund project to dredge the upper Hudson River to remove PCBs which has already cost nearly US$1 billion. In this regard, the novel technique developed by the research team to culture PCB dechlorinators could pave the way for alternative, and possibly more effective, methods of degrading PCBs on-site.

Novel substrate for culturing PCB dechlorinators

Associate Professor He Jianzhong, who is from the NUS Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, explained, "While the scientific community has found out that certain bacteria can dechlorinate PCBs and make them more susceptible to oxidation, it was not until three decades ago that some were identified. However, challenges still remain in growing these organisms in quantities that will make an impact. Their low biomass has also prevented us from studying closely the process, especially in identifying the enzymes responsible. Furthermore, as PCBs are extremely insoluble, they are unsuitable as substrates for culturing the helpful bacteria."

To overcome this problem, the NUS team came out with an alternative substrate called Terrachloroethene (PCE) which can be used to boost the cell numbers of PCB dechlorinators.

"This discovery is a quantum leap forward in our understanding of microbial PCB dechlorination and hence open up new possibilities of developing more effective ways of destroying PCBs in our environment," said Assoc Prof He.

Genomic technologies to the fore

Dr Niranjan Nagarajan, who leads the research at GIS, said, "Through synergy generated from traditional culture techniques combined with state of the art genomic technologies, we could successfully cultivate and characterise three PCB dechlorinating microbial strains. From these efforts, we were able to be the first to identify the functional genes responsible for breaking down PCBs. These genes could be very useful as biomarkers for monitoring PCB bioremediation."

Assoc Prof He added, "Finding useful bacteria can be tough. Our work shows how advanced genomic technologies can be combined with culturing to sift through bacteria in the environment and find the gems. This is a big step forward in the development of in-situ microbial detoxification technologies for PCB bioremediation."

These discoveries promise to move the bioremediation technology for PCBs into the realm of reality because for the first time, bioaugmentation is feasible. The impact of this outstanding research is tremendous, which makes in-situ bioremediation possible by saving significant amount of time and labor. Future research will be focused on application of genomic technologies for in-situ degradation of PCBs and other halogenated compounds.

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The above story is based on materials provided by National University of Singapore . Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Video: The Next Frontier for Big Data


DropCam can keep tabs on loved ones, storing many hours of video. DropCam

Years of video are recorded and uploaded to the cloud each day to sites like YouTube, Vine, and Facebook from devices like mobile phones, personal drones, or home surveillance cameras. With the new capabilities of computer vision technology, we have the ability to mine this visual data to get valuable insights about what’s happening in the world. However, video content has largely been ignored in the conversation about big data.

Video as a data source has the power to give us information about how people interact with the world around them unlike any other data source. Video provides real-time data about behavior happening in the present, not just the past — whether it’s traffic patterns for the commute in and out of San Francisco or what time most kids get home from school in Palo Alto, California.

Video data stored in the cloud is exploding. Nest, Google’s internet of things investment, just bought Dropcam, a home security camera company. Silicon Valley companies are building fleets of satellites that will orbit the earth and be able to take thousands of high resolution photos or record video for up to 90 seconds of any spot, and revisit that spot several times per day. Inexpensive consumer drones like the DJI Phantom are selling in the thousands per week. Much of that data captured by these technologies is being uploaded to public sites such as YouTube where anyone can access them.

How can we extract value from all this video, in the way that we do from other “big data” sources?

To move forward, we have to get past our current fixation on the devices — drones being the largest example — and focus on the software that will extract the useful data they collect, and the answers that can come from that data. To find these answers we need to have a way to mine video content for data.

Until now, extracting intelligence from video content has mostly “manual,” through human observation — literally, a human watching the video and writing down what is happening. Think about a documentary filmmaker “logging” their footage, marking down interesting occurrences in the video, what they are, and when they occur. This was the process for police and FBI who mined hours of surveillance video collected after the Boston Marathon Bombings to find moments where the bombers passed the cameras.

To make video data into useful big data, we need to leap beyond this. We need true video analytics, powered by computer vision. Current search technology looks at the metadata stored with videos — like tags you include when you upload a YouTube video (“science”, “kids,” “cat dancing” or other keywords). Or, some sites use still image techniques (like classification) to find objects, cars, or company logos in videos. True video analytics involves using computer vision algorithms to analyze video pixels automatically, and over time — not only identifying objects in the scene, but also tracking their movements and behavior. With true video analytics you can track patterns of movement of hundreds of objects in the scene, as well as their size, shape, speed, and direction of movement.

To see the influence that data gathered from video would have, let’s take a mundane government question like, “Is it worth it to invest in new infrastructure to address traffic issues in the Bay Area?” Here in Burlingame, local citizens wanted a new crosswalk built across a busy intersection. The town had to employ a full-time person to stand and manually count every adult and child that crossed that intersection over a week — in order to measure how many citizens would benefit from that investment. This could have been accomplished with a single surveillance camera and video analytics, measuring people (adults, kids), and vehicles, turning the data into something that is actionable (and provides good ROI).

We could assess things like how many, and what type of vehicles are using a new highway overpass? Were the tax breaks given to the company who asked for it worth it? Is the local sewage facility operating within regulations? Are there sewage outflows after heavy rains? How big are they?

Over the longer term, as video analytics of aerial or space data become more widely accessible, it will change the way we understand the world. It will give everyone access to the data that, until recently, only militaries and intelligence agencies had at their disposal. It will let everyone see for themselves what is really happening around the world and disrupt the current notion of the big data revolution. This is true freedom of information and it is on the horizon.

Dr. Sean Varah is founder and CEO of MotionDSP.

Protein secrets of Ebola virus

The current Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa, which has claimed more than 2000 lives, has highlighted the need for a deeper understanding of the molecular biology of the virus that could be critical in the development of vaccines or antiviral drugs to treat or prevent Ebola hemorrhagic fever. Now, a team at the University of Virginia (UVA), USA -- under the leadership of Dr Dan Engel, a virologist, and Dr Zygmunt Derewenda, a structural biologist -- has obtained the crystal structure of a key protein involved in Ebola virus replication, the C-terminal domain of the Zaire Ebola virus nucleoprotein (NP).

The team explains that their structure reveals a novel tertiary fold that is expected to lead to insights into how the viral nucleocapsid is assembled in infected cells. The structure could also provide a basis for the design of drugs to halt infection in humans. "The structure is unique in the RNA virus world," Derewenda explains. "It is not found in viruses that cause influenza, rabies or other diseases." It distantly resembles the β-grasp protein motif found in ubiquitin, most likely the result of convergent evolution.

Like many other related viruses, Ebola virus contains a negative-sense, single-stranded RNA that encodes seven different proteins, one of which is known as the nucleoprotein (NP) for its ability to interact with the viral RNA genome. It is the most abundant viral protein found in infected cells and also inside the viral nucleocapsid. While five of the seven viral proteins have succumbed to structural characterization by X-ray crystallography, NP so far has resisted such attempts, although analogous proteins from other viruses have had their structures analysed.

The UVA team produced the Ebola protein using an engineered form of Escherichia coli bacteria as a protein factory. This allowed them to identify the boundaries of two globular domains and to crystallize the unique C-terminal domain spanning amino-acid residues 641 to 739. The study revealed a molecular architecture unseen so far among known proteins, the team says. There is existing evidence that the newly characterized domain is involved in transcription and the self-assembly of the viral nucleocapsid. As such, the results obtained by the UVA team will be useful in deciphering precisely how these various functions are accomplished by the virus; such a detailed description offers up a potential target for the design of anti-viral drugs.

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The above story is based on materials provided by International Union of Crystallography . Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Minecraft Creator Explains Controversial $2.5 Billion Sale to Microsoft


Minecraft. Image courtesy Mojang

Markus “Notch” Persson has a message for Minecraft fans. “It’s not about the money. It’s about my sanity.”

On Monday morning, tech giant Microsoft announced that it has acquired Persson’s indie gaming company, Mojang, maker of Minecraft, the hit game that lets you build your own virtual worlds, and Persson took to his blog to explain his part in this highly contentious move. Rumors of such a deal first emerged last week, leaving many of Minecraft’s loyal fans wondering why Persson, who has been a vocal critic of Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus VR, would sell to a corporate giant like Microsoft.

Basically, Persson is tired. Since it launched in 2009, Persson said on his blog, Minecraft’s explosive growth and the public spotlight that came with it had become overwhelming. Persson acknowledges that as an outspoken critic of corporations, including Microsoft, he became a sort of figurehead for the indie developer community, a role he says he never really wanted in the first place. “I don’t want to be a symbol, responsible for something huge that I don’t understand,” he writes. “I’m not an entrepreneur. I’m not a CEO. I’m a nerdy computer programmer who likes to have opinions on Twitter.”

So, he explains, as soon as the deal with Microsoft is finalized, he plans to leave the company to work on “small web experiments.” And if any of those experiments should become as popular as Minecraft became, Persson writes, “I’ll probably abandon it immediately.”

Certainly, the irony of the move isn’t lost on him. “I’m aware this goes against a lot of what I’ve said in public. I have no good response to that,” he continues. “Thank you for turning Minecraft into what it has become, but there are too many of you, and I can’t be responsible for something this big.”

This decision is not likely to ease fears among Minecraft’s fan base. Many fear that their favorite game will wither under Microsoft’s leadership, or, at the very least, become inextricably linked to Microsoft’s Xbox gaming system. As WIRED pointed out last week, after Halo was acquired by Microsoft in 2000, sequels to the flagship game were launched exclusively for Microsoft platforms. Such a change could alienate a wide swath of Microsoft’s user base. And without its nonconformist leader on board, maintaining creative independence may become even more difficult for the Minecraft team.

In a blog post, Phil Spencer, Microsoft’s head of Xbox, attempted to offset that fear, writing that Microsoft plans to continue offering the game for iOS, Android, and Playstation, as well as Xbox and PC. He wrote that the company has been interested in buying Mojang ever since Minecraft became the top online game on Xbox Live. “The Minecraft community is passionate and diverse, ranging across all ages and demographics,” Spencer writes. “We respect the brand and independent spirit that has made Minecraft great, and we’ll carry on the tradition of innovation to move the franchise forward.”

Persson echoed that sentiment in his own post, noting that while Microsoft may technically own Minecraft now, “in a much bigger sense, it’s belonged to all of you for a long time, and that will never change.”

Boosting armor for nuclear-waste eating microbes

A microbe developed to clean up nuclear waste and patented by a Michigan State University researcher has just been improved.

In earlier research, Gemma Reguera, MSU microbiologist, identified that Geobacter bacteria's tiny conductive hair-like appendages, or pili, did the yeoman's share of remediation. By increasing the strength of the pili nanowires, she improved their ability to clean up uranium and other toxic wastes.

In new research, published in the current issue of Applied and Environmental Microbiology, Reguera has added an additional layer of armor to her enhanced microbes.

The microbes also use the pili to stick to each other and grow a film on just about any surface, similar to the bacterial film that forms on teeth. The Geobacter biofilm, encased by a network of nanowires and slime, gives the bacteria a shield and increases their ability to neutralize even more uranium. The improvement also allows the bacteria to survive longer even when exposed to higher concentrations of the radioactive material.

Geobacter immobilizing uranium can be described as nature's version of electroplating. The beefed-up microbes engulf the uranium and turn it into a mineral, preventing the toxic material from leaching into groundwater.

Reguera's team had previously linked the conductive pili to the ability of the microbe to mineralize the soluble uranium. As the biofilm concentrates many nanowires around the Geobacter cells, more uranium can be bound and mineralized. The pili are immersed in a matrix of slime, which surrounds the biofilm cells and boosts the Geobacter's pili armor, so the biofilm now can pull double duty by helping mineralize uranium.

The shield keeps the uranium from penetrating deep into the Geobacter biofilm. By keeping this process on the surface of the film, the bacteria are not exposed to uranium and, as a community, they are able to clean up more toxic waste.

"The results surpassed our most optimistic predictions," Reguera said. "Even thin biofilms immobilized uranium like sponges. They reduced it to a mineral, all while not suffering any damage to themselves, for prolonged periods of time."

Even when exposed to extremely high and toxic concentrations of uranium, levels that would destroy individual Geobacter cells, the biofilms didn't just survive, they thrived, she added.

Additional MSU researchers contributing to the study include Dena Cologgi, Allison Speers and Blair Bullard. Shelly Kelly with EXAFS Analysis, also contributed to the study.

Reguera's future research on this front will focus on deciphering how the biofilm matrix that encases the cells shields them so effectively and how to improve its properties further.

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The above story is based on materials provided by Michigan State University . Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Pterosaurs by Mark Witton [Greg Laden's Blog]

Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy by Mark P. Witton is a coffee-table size book rich in detail and lavishly illustrated. Witton is a pterosaur expert at the School of Earh and Environmental Sciences at the University of Portsmouth. He is famous for his illustrations and his work in popular media such as the film “Walking With Dinosaurs 3D.”

The first pterosaur fossil was found in the late 18th century in the Jurassic Solnhofen Limestones, in Germany, the same excellent preservational environment that would later yield Archaeopteryx. They person who first studied it thought the elongated finger bones that we now know supported a wing served as a flipper in an amphibious creature. Not long after, the famous paleontologist George Cuvier recognized the winged nature of the beast. Witton notes that at the time, and through a good part of the 19th century, it was possible to believe that many of the odd fossils being unearthed were of species that still existed but were unknown to science. This is because most of the fossils were aquatic, and who knew what mysterious forms lurked beneath the sea? But a very large flying thing like this first pterosaur was very unlikely to still exist, unseen by European and American investigators. It had to be something major that was truly extinct. So in a way the history of extinction (the study of it, that is) was significantly shaped by this find. By the early 20th century there had been enough publication and study of pterosaurs to give them a place in paleontology, but not a lot else happened until the 1970s, when a combination of factors, including advanced technology that allowed more detailed and sophisticated study of fossils, led to much more intensive study of pterosaur anatomy and behavior.

Pterosaurs are part of the large taxonomic group that includes the lizards, dinosaurs, and birds, but they branched off within that group prior to the rise of the latter two. So, they are not dinosaurs, but cousins of dinosaurs. You can call them flying lizards, but not flying dinosaurs.

Witton explores this interesting history in some detail, and then proceeds to explore various aspects of pterosaur biology, starting with the skeleton, the soft parts (of which there is some direct but mostly indirect evidence), their flight, how they got around on the ground, and their reproductive biology. These explorations into pterosaurs in general is followed by several chapters devoted to the various groups, with a treatment of the evidence for each group, reconstructions of anatomy, locomotion in the air and on the ground, and ecology.

The resemblance of this layout to a detailed field guide for birds (or some other group) is enhanced by the use of color-coded bleeds at the top of each page, separating the book’s major sections or groups of chapters. The book ends with a consideration of the origins and endings of the “Pterosaur Empire.” It turns out that we don’t actually know why they went extinct. They lasted to the end of the Cretaceous, so going extinct along with their dinosaur cousins is a reasonable hypothesis, but they had already become somewhat rare by that time.

Pterosaurs are cool. Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy is a cool book.

Of related interest:

France’s Bizarre Three-Wheeled Buggies May Be the Perfect EVs

Toyota's i-Road may be the perfect urban electric vehicle.

Toyota’s i-Road may be the perfect urban electric vehicle. Toyota

The streets of one French city will soon be filled with funky vehicles that resemble hulked-up mopeds. But before you make fun, consider that while they look silly, the way these things are being used may make them the perfect electric vehicles.

Next month, Toyota and Grenoble will launch a program giving residents access to two of the weirder vehicles built in recent memory. Through the Cité Lib by Ha:Mo (harmonious mobility) system, Toyota is providing 70 EVs that can be rented for short periods of time. Like bike sharing, the idea is to give people a way to get from public transit stations to their destinations, covering the “last mile” so they don’t feel the need to take their car.

The goal is to “be a part of creating a future urban mobility,” says Toyota chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada, to make getting around cities easier and reduce emissions. We’ll have to see how the Grenoblois react to the program to gauge its success, but it’s got two things going for it. The very fact that it’s a new kind of vehicle sharing service makes it worth trying out. And more importantly, Toyota has found what may be the ideal application of electric vehicles.

Anyone 18 and older with a driver’s license can sign up for the program, which uses two kinds of Toyota vehicles: the three-wheeled i-Road, which seats one, and the four-wheeled COMS, with room for two. Fees vary, but expect to pay about €3 ($3.89) for 15 minutes, or €5 ($6.50) for half an hour. Users can park at any of 27 stations around the city, where they plug in to charge before walking away.

The new program calls to mind two kinds of vehicle sharing services. The first is car sharing. A good example is Car2Go, a Daimler AG-run company that lets users in cities in Germany and the US rent Smart cars by the minute. Users can park wherever they find a space, not at set stations, which fully solves the last mile problem.

The second is bike sharing. More than 500 cities around the world have a program, and while the specifics vary, the basic premise is usually the same: Sign up for a membership, and you can borrow a bike from any station in the city, ride it for a set amount of time (usually around 30 minutes), then return it to any station where there’s an open spot. Bikes are even better than electric cars when it comes to the environment and public health, and you can pack many more bikes into a standard bike share than you get vehicles in a car share. Of course, biking is less convenient when you’re lugging around groceries or offspring. Or when you remember that humans invented automobiles because sometimes being lazy is totally fine.

The Toyota-Grenoble program is a blend of these services. The vehicles are better than Smart cars for moving around a cramped old city like Grenoble (maneuverability is an undervalued part of mobility), though you can’t just park them wherever. Using electricity instead of gasoline is good for the environment and lungs of le peuple, but not as good as making everyone pedal. In any case, these are early days for vehicle sharing services, and we don’t know what exact combination of pros and cons people want. The very fact that Ha:Mo is a new system makes it worth trying.

toyota i-Road grenoble tram


But beyond that, there’s a reason we’re excited about this system: It may be the perfect application of electric vehicles. The two big downsides to the technology today are limited range and high cost. Apart from Tesla, whose vehicles can actually cross the country, automakers pitch electric cars as city vehicles with enough juice to handle most daily driving tasks. The problem is that prices are still real high, and few people are willing to pay $30,000 or more for a vehicle that’s useless when they need to hit the road for a few hours to see the in-laws. Until range goes up and prices come down, mass adoption of EVs won’t happen.

Ha:Mo solves neither problem, but sidesteps both. On a full battery, the i-Road and COMS can each drive about three hours at a presumably limited speed. That’s actually excessive for vehicles meant to be used for a few minutes at a time and charged in between. Cost isn’t an issue because people are renting the vehicles (at a reasonable rate), not buying or leasing them. EV ownership may not happen on a grand scale for years or decades. In the meantime, these vehicles fill the niche that is open to them.

One potential weakness of the Ha-Mo program is its network of just 27 parking/charging stations. The fact that the cars must be parked there limits their usefulness. Surely some residents will be too far from stations to make the vehicles worth renting.

Toyota could take a lesson here from Car2Go San Diego, one of the cities where the program uses electric instead of gas-powered cars. There, users can park wherever they want, unless the car’s battery drops below 20 percent of its range while they’re driving. In that case, they must end their journey at one of the stations around the city where they can plug in. If Ha:Mo follows suit or finds another way to solves that issue, it could finally make mass EV adoption—if not ownership—a reality.

A Brilliantly Witty Book Mined From Twitter’s Wannabe Novelists

If you’ve ever tweeted about working on a novel, there’s a good chance Cory Arcangel read it. Not your novel. Your tweet.

For the last several years, the New York artist has fastidiously tracked the phrase “working on my novel” as used on Twitter. His new book, Working On My Novel , collects hundreds of these tiny declarations of literary intent. It’s a clever conceit, but it’s also something more. Taken together, the messages make for a poignant picture of creativity—and life in general—in age of social media.

The cover.

The cover. Cory Arcangel

Before the project was a book, it was a Twitter account, and before that, it was a BuzzFeed post. The earliest incarnation arrived in 2009, when Arcangel, a friend of BuzzFeed creator Jonah Peretti’s from their time running in New York’s digital arts scene, was doing a turn as a guest editor on Peretti’s then-new site. Arcangel, whose brilliant software-driven work has established him one of his generation’s most incisive artists, made a post linking to the search results for the phrase “working on my novel” on Twitter. It was a nice bit of juxtaposition: an age-old creative pursuit as it was being expressed on a frenetic new creative medium.

But the idea stuck around, and eventually, Arcangel brought it back as a Twitter account. Every morning he’d wake up, read through the previous day’s tweets that included “working on my novel,” and re-tweet the best ones. “I’d maybe Tweet one out of every four hundred,” he says. “Because they had to be right. By the time it got to the Twitter feed, I’d realized that my eye was a kind of part of it.” A while later, when Penguin asked Arcangel to pitch some ideas for a book, the “working on my novel” project emerged as an obvious fit.

Making a book full of tweets was not as straightforward as it might seem. Since Twitter doesn’t offer a way to search for messages more than a week old, Arcangel had to write a crawler that archived every usage of that exact language. Then he ran it for two years.

“It was kind of a monumental effort,” he says. “But it was really exciting to me to write a book which basically required writing a lot of software.”

When it came time for Arcangel to pick his favorites, he gravitated to the ones that made some comment on the world around them, even in some small, seemingly mundane way. “I didn’t have a defined criteria,” he says of the process. “It’s a lot of a ‘I know it when I see it.’ A good tweet has to be able to stand by itself. It has paint a really good picture. I really like ones that have references to contemporary culture.”

Though his role was largely one of curator, Arcangel thinks the book fits perfectly within his larger body of work. He compared it to his best known project, Super Mario Clouds , a modified version of the iconic game in which Arcangel stripped out the game’s visuals until it just showed a parade of pixelated clouds inching slowly across the blue sky. (Earlier this summer, when a Yahoo tech writer asked a group of respected critics what might be considered the Mona Lisa of the digital art, Super Mario Clouds was the closest they came to a consensus.)

That project, Arcangel says, was about finding the unassuming moments of beauty that often get overlooked in the digital world. “At that time, people weren’t looking at those graphics like that. Those things weren’t considered beautiful.”

In the same way, the book encourages us to look a little more closely at something we’d otherwise ignore. “On one level it’s about people dealing with what it means to be creative,” he says, “But overall, I hope when you read the book you get a sense of what life is like today. And to me, the tweets do have a beauty in them. Because they’re very human.”