Healthy humans make nice homes for viruses

The same viruses that make us sick can take up residence in and on the human body without provoking a sneeze, cough or other troublesome symptom, according to new research at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

On average, healthy individuals carry about five types of viruses on their bodies, the researchers report online in BioMed Central Biology. The study is the first comprehensive analysis to describe the diversity of viruses in healthy people.

The research was conducted as part of the Human Microbiome Project, a major initiative funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that largely has focused on cataloging the body's bacterial ecosystems.

"Most everyone is familiar with the idea that a normal bacterial flora exists in the body," said study co-author Gregory Storch, MD, a virologist and chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases. "Lots of people have asked whether there is a viral counterpart, and we haven't had a clear answer. But now we know there is a normal viral flora, and it's rich and complex."

In 102 healthy young adults ages 18 to 40, the researchers sampled up to five body habitats: nose, skin, mouth, stool and vagina. The study's subjects were nearly evenly split by gender.

At least one virus was detected in 92 percent of the people sampled, and some individuals harbored 10 to 15 viruses.

"We were impressed by the number of viruses we found," said lead author Kristine M. Wylie, PhD, an instructor of pediatrics. "We only sampled up to five body sites in each person and would expect to see many more viruses if we had sampled the entire body."

Scientists led by George Weinstock, PhD, at Washington University's Genome Institute, sequenced the DNA of the viruses recovered from the body, finding that each individual had a distinct viral fingerprint. (Weinstock is now at The Jackson Laboratory in Connecticut.) About half of people were sampled at two or three points in time, and the researchers noted that some of the viruses established stable, low-level infections.

The researchers don't know yet whether the viruses have a positive or negative effect on overall health but speculate that in some cases, they may keep the immune system primed to respond to dangerous pathogens while in others, lingering viruses increase the risk of disease.

Study volunteers were screened carefully to confirm they were healthy and did not have symptoms of acute infection. They also could not have been diagnosed in the past two years with human papillomavirus infection (HPV), which can cause cervical and throat cancer, or have an active genital herpes infection.

Analyzing the samples, the scientists found seven families of viruses, including strains of herpes viruses that are not sexually transmitted. For example, herpesvirus 6 or herpesvirus 7 was found in 98 percent of individuals sampled from the mouth. Certain strains of papillomaviruses were found in about 75 percent of skin samples and 50 percent of samples from the nose. Novel strains of the virus were found in both sites.

Not surprisingly, the vagina was dominated by papillomaviruses, with 38 percent of female subjects carrying such strains. Some of the women harbored certain high-risk strains that increase the risk of cervical cancer. These strains were more common in women with communities of vaginal bacteria that had lower levels of Lactobacillus and an increase in bacteria such as Gardnerella, which is associated with bacterial vaginosis.

Adenoviruses, the viruses that cause the common cold and pneumonia, also were common at many sites in the body.

It's possible that some of the viruses the researchers uncovered were latent infections acquired years ago. But many viruses were found in body secretions where the presence of a virus is an indicator of an active infection. Dormant or latent viruses hide in cells, not in body fluids such as saliva or nasal secretions, Wylie explained. A further direction for researchers is to distinguish between active viral infections that aren't causing symptoms and those that are making a person sick.

"It's very important to know what viruses are present in a person without causing a problem and what viruses could be responsible for serious illnesses that need medical attention," said Storch, the Ruth L. Siteman Professor of Pediatrics. "While more research remains, we now have a much clearer picture of the communities of viruses that naturally exist in healthy people."

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The above story is based on materials provided by Washington University in St. Louis . The original article was written by Caroline Arbanas. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

New drug formulations to boost fight against respiratory illnesses, antibiotic-resistant superbugs

A team from A*STAR's Institute of Chemical and Engineering Sciences (ICES) and the National University Hospital (NUH) has discovered new ways to enhance the efficacy of drugs used to treat respiratory system infections and antibiotic-resistant superbugs.

A team of five researchers and clinicians in Singapore led by Dr Desmond Heng, ICES, has developed a new combination of drugs to effectively combat bacteria in the lungs which lead to common respiratory system infections, or bacteria-linked pulmonary diseases such as pneumonia, bronchiectasis and cystic fibrosis.

An acute upper respiratory tract infection, which includes the common flu, was reported to be among the top four conditions diagnosed at polyclinics for eight consecutive years, from 2006 to 2013.

Pneumonia on the other hand, was the second leading cause of death in 2012, contributing to 16.8 per cent of the total number of deaths from illnesses behind cancer.

The team has developed four new drug formulations of antibiotics and muco-actives which have proven to be extremely effective in laboratory trials in treating these diseases, as well as in reducing the antibiotic resistance of so-called "superbugs."

Breaking down the bacterium's 'shield'

Antibiotic resistance is a challenge in the treatment of diseases today as bacteria continuously mutate and develop resistance against multiple drugs designed to kill them, turning them into superbugs.

To fight these superbugs, the research team has developed and patented three other drug formulations that are each made up of three different antibiotics. These antibiotics complement each other by fighting bacteria in different ways and they can potentially be used interchangeably to prevent bacteria from developing drug resistance.

The team's findings show that all three mixtures are effective against multi-drug resistant strains which include bacterial pathogens such as Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Klebsiella pneumoniae. These formulations kill more multi-drug resistant bacteria than a single drug, and are up to five times more effective than antibiotics used for treating respiratory system infections today. This will allow doctors to prescribe smaller, more effective drug doses to treat patients.

In addition, their formulations can be inhaled by the patient directly, thereby allowing a higher concentration of medicine to reach the lungs compared to injections or orally-administered drugs.

These drug formulations are a result of an on-going collaboration between A*STAR and NUH which started in 2010. Buoyed by the results from the laboratory tests, the team is looking to move into clinical trials to test the stability and efficiency of their new drug formulations.

Dr Keith Carpenter, Executive Director of ICES, said: "I am delighted that the work stems from the results of our expertise in inhaled novel formulations. This is an excellent example of how our collaboration with the local medical community is helping to translate our research from bench to bedside, and further developing innovative therapies for patients."

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The above story is based on materials provided by The Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) . Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

NASA Picks Boeing and SpaceX to Build Its Space Taxi

The SpaceX Dragon at the International Space Station.

The SpaceX Dragon at the International Space Station. NASA

Let the space race begin.

NASA announced on Tuesday that it has awarded two multibillion dollar contracts to Boeing and Space Exploration Technologies, better known as SpaceX, to develop spacecraft to shuttle astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The contracts will make the two companies the first commercial businesses to send NASA astronauts to space, fulfilling the government’s commitment to commercial spaceflight ever since NASA retired its space shuttle fleet back in 2011.

But more than just a windfall for Boeing and SpaceX, which were awarded $4.2 billion and $2.6 billion respectively, the announcement also serves as an important first step toward kickstarting the commercial space industry, which includes other companies like Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Sierra Nevada Corp. that seek to make space travel accessible to the rest of us. As NASA astronaut Mike Fincke said at Tuesday’s press conference: “I look at these spacecraft as the keys to the doorway to space, where we’re trying to open the door to more and more people getting to see what we’ve seen from space, our beautiful planet and beyond.”

According to NASA administrator Charles Bolden, the partnership will begin to end NASA’s reliance on Russia, which has been taking astronauts to space since the U.S. shuttle program ended. “The greatest nation on earth shouldn’t be dependent on any other nation to get to space,” Bolden said.

Partnering with these companies will also serve another important purpose for NASA. It will allow the agency to concentrate on what Bolden called a “more ambitious mission”—namely, sending humans to Mars. Bolden spoke at length about NASA’s ongoing progress with the Orion spacecraft, which is being developed to send humans farther than ever before, including to an asteroid and Mars. Orion, which is set to launch its first uncrewed mission in December, could enable NASA astronauts to become the first to take samples of asteroids, or, Bolden added, “perhaps the first to grow their own food and eat it in space.”

While such accomplishments may be many years away, Boeing and SpaceX are operating on a much tighter timeline. Boeing’s CST-100 capsule and SpaceX’s Dragon capsules are expected to complete NASA’s rigorous certification process by 2017. They will not only have to meet NASA’s safety standards, but must also run at least one crude test flight to the space station to get their certification. Then, once they’re certified, they’ll be required to run at least two and up to six missions, carrying a crew of four astronauts to the Space Station. According to Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, these astronauts will “nearly double the scientific research potential” on the Space Station.

Once the contracts are complete, SpaceX and Boeing will no doubt leverage the expertise they’ve acquired working with NASA to build out their own commercial operations for non-astronauts. After all, building a space travel industry aimed at civilians is something that SpaceX founder Elon Musk, for one, has been particularly vocal about. Having access to NASA’s financing and expertise is sure to accelerate that process.

At the conclusion of Tuesday’s press conference, Fincke, who holds the American record for most time in space, provided some insight into what such a future might look like. “I’ve watched from the windows of our beautiful space station as the earth moved below, and from 250 miles up, a glance can reveal Paris, California, and Brazil at once,” he said. “These new ships give us the hope that more and more people will get to see that view, and take in that inspiration.”

PayPal’s Attack Ad Shows Apple’s Power to Inspire Fear and Loathing


Alex Washburn / WIRED

People complain about negative advertising, but it never goes away. That’s because it works.

PayPal has taken this conventional wisdom to heart, launching an attack ad against its latest and most formidable competitor, Apple Pay, before the new service even lands in the hands of consumers. Appearing in multiple newspapers, the full-page spread is meant to sow distrust in Apple by reminding the world of this month’s massive iCloud celebrity selfie hack.



The ad may or may not be fair. It might not even have the desired effect. But it indisputably shows what happens when Apple muscles into a new market: the incumbents immediately become the underdogs. And how they react becomes a measure of how powerful Apple really is. In the case of the payments business, PayPal has clear reason to be worried.

When Microsoft made Internet Explorer the default Windows web browser, it quickly shot to the top of the list of most popular browsers, where it stayed for years, despite the existence of other, arguably better browsers that came before it. Apple has the power to do the same for payments with Apple Pay, but with notable differences that put it in an even better position than Microsoft. First, Apple controls the hardware as well as the software. Second, Apple’s demonstrated design chops suggest a company that will never let its products sink into the kind of user-experience decrepitude that sank IE.

The analogy also breaks down a bit around the sheer duration of PayPal’s incumbency. PayPal has been synonymous with online payments for more than a decade, while the web was still in its infancy when IE came out. Integrating Apple Pay across the online and offline retail worlds will take time. PayPal users wouldn’t be able to make any kind of full-time switch even if they wanted to go all-Apple. PayPal has reason to be hopeful. But in the long run, the threat is real.

Apple Isn’t the Other

If any company has the power to hasten its own ubiquity, it’s Apple. Apple Pay will spread quickly once the iPhone 6 and iOS 8 are released this week. Even PayPal’s own Braintree division has released a way for developers to integrate Apple Pay into their online apps. And Apple is restricting the use of the iPhone 6′s NFC chip to Apple Pay, which means PayPal won’t be able to take advantage of the new phones’ power to act as in-store credit card substitutes.

Those factors leave PayPal with little choice but to seek to undermine Apple’s advantages through marketing. The new PayPal ad tries to sound a populist note: “We the people want our money safer than our selfies.” Aiming at Apple’s apparent negligence in locking down iCloud is the obvious target. If Apple can’t be trusted with photos, can it really be trusted with credit card numbers?

A crucial difference, however, appears to be that Apple Pay’s tokenization system doesn’t appear to store a user’s credit card number at all, locally or online, once that card is scanned. If nothing else, that makes Apple Pay more secure than physical credit cards themselves.

Even granting that Apple has yet to make up the trust deficit the iCloud hack incurred, however, portraying Apple as the overlord aligned against the “people” seems unlikely to succeed. In polls, Apple consistently ranks near the top among the world’s most trusted and admired brands. And Apple users relate to their devices. However much control they really have, people who carry their iPhones everywhere they go feel like the devices belong to them. Apple isn’t the Other. Apple is what’s in your pocket, a digital extension of yourself.

The Omnivore Dilemma

That closeness users feel to Apple hints at a broader problem for PayPal: it’s a niche platform, while Apple is an omnivore. Apple has the power to try to absorb nearly any function or feature into itself. To escape Apple’s predations, PayPal could make itself another omnivore’s prey.

Last week, trading in PayPal parent company eBay’s shares spiked on rumors Google planned to buy a major stake in the company, a rumor eBay quickly shot down. But a Google acquisition might not be such a bad thing for PayPal, especially if Google decided to make it the Apple Pay of Android. In mobile, Google’s reach is much broader than Apple’s, if less focused. And for Google, PayPal is already a much more recognized brand than any of Google’s own payment efforts.

Going with Google, another corporate behemoth, wouldn’t exactly make PayPal look more populist. But when you’re up against Apple, it’s one of the moves most likely to help you stay popular.

Bacterial communication: And so they beat on, flagella against the cantilever

A team of researchers at Boston University and Stanford University School of Medicine has developed a new model to study the motion patterns of bacteria in real time and to determine how these motions relate to communication within a bacterial colony.

The researchers chemically attached colonies of Escherichia coli bacteria to a microcantilever -- a microscopic beam anchored at one end, similar to a diving board -- thus coupling its motion to that of the bacteria. As the cantilever itself isn't doesn't generate any vibrations, or 'noise,' this allowed the researchers to monitor the colony's reactions to various stimuli in real time.

"When they die, they stop moving, so it's a good way to measure the effectiveness of an antibiotic," said Kamil Ekinci, an associate professor at Boston University. He and fellow researchers describe their work in the journal Applied Physics Letters, which is produced by AIP Publishing. "You know more or less immediately that they're dead."

The traditional method of assessing a bacteria's antibiotic susceptibility- culturing bacteria on agar plates infused with antibiotics -- is quite time-consuming in comparison, and can take up to a day to produce results.

"Here in this system -- down to a couple hundred of bacteria -- we're able to see their responses to external stimuli such as drugs," said Utkan Demirci, an associate professor at Stanford University School of Medicine. "This also potentially applies to other types of cells, such as drug resistance in cancer."

While cantilevers have been used before to characterize cellular mechanics, Ekinci and Demirci bring a new approach to look at cellular movement and noise in natural systems, hoping to eventually develop a disposable microfluidic chip.

"It's a new direction for tool development," Demirci said. "It could allow us to address some interesting biological questions in the antibiotic resistance and evolution space."

Ekinci also found that when the amplitude of the bacteria's random movements was plotted against their frequency, a distinct, familiar pattern began to emerge.

"We saw that the fluctuations were focused at certain frequencies -- they weren't like white noise," Ekinci said. Not quite white, but rather, something closer to pink.

1/f-type noise, also known as pink-like noise, is a recurring pattern in which the power spectral density of a signal is inversely proportional to its frequency. This occurs within a wide variety of systems, including biological processes such as the random firing of neuron channels and the electrocardiogram of a heart's rhythms, as well as in mechanical processes such as background noise in electronic devices and pitch progression in classical music.

"We think that there are several different time scales in the motion of these bacteria, and when you look at them collectively, you see 1/f-type behavior," Ekinci said.

In addition to the long-term goal of creating smaller, portable sensors, future work includes identifying the precise structural sources of vibrations, in order to develop a quantitative physical model of the noise and better understand the bacterial communication pathways.

"I want to make this more quantitative and determine the sources of these noises," Ekinci said. "I think this could be a useful tool for doing some fundamental studies."

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The above story is based on materials provided by American Institute of Physics (AIP) . Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Each tree species has unique bacterial identity, microbiome research shows

Each tree species has its own bacterial identity. That's the conclusion of University of Oregon researchers and colleagues from other institutions who studied the genetic fingerprints of bacteria on 57 species of trees growing on a Panamanian island.

"This study demonstrates for the first time that host plants from different plant families and with different ecological strategies possess very different microbial communities on their leaves," said lead author Steven W. Kembel, a former postdoctoral researcher in the UO's Institute of Ecology and Evolution who is now a professor of biological sciences at the University of Quebec at Montreal.

For the research -- published this week in the online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences -- researchers gathered bacterial samples from 57 of the more than 450 tree species growing in a lowland tropical forest on Barro Colorado Island, Panama.

Using DNA sequencing technology housed at the UO's Genomics Core Facility, scientists sequenced the bacterial 16S ribosomal RNA gene isolated from the samples. That gene, which biologists call a barcode gene, allowed researchers to identify and measure the diversity of bacteria based on millions of DNA fragments produced from bacterial communities collected from the surfaces of leaves, said Jessica Green, a professor at both the UO and Santa Fe Institute.

"Some bacteria were very abundant and present on every leaf in the forest, while others were rare and only found on the leaves of a single host species," Kembel said. "Each tree species of tree possessed a distinctive community of bacteria on its leaves."

In the world of microbiology, plant leaves are considered to be a habitat known as the phyllosphere. They are host to millions of bacteria, Kembel said. "These bacteria can have important effects -- both positive and negative -- on the health and functioning of their host plants," he said. "For example, while some bacteria on leaves cause disease, others may protect the plant against pathogens or produce hormones that increase plant growth rates."

In the animal microbiome, the researchers noted, studies comparing large numbers of species have shown that host diet -- for example, herbivory versus carnivory -- has a large effect on the structure of microbial communities in their guts. The new study, Kembel and Green said, provides a comparable understanding of the host attributes that explain patterns of microbial diversity in the plant microbiome.

"We found that the abundance of some bacterial taxa was correlated with the growth, mortality, and function of the host," Kembel said. These included bacteria involved in nitrogen fixing and the consumption of methane, as well as bacteria linked to soil and water.

Dominating the bacterial communities were a core microbiome of taxa including Actinobacteria, Alpha-, Beta- and Gamma-Proteobacteria and Sphingobacteria. Some types of bacteria, the researcher found, were more abundant when growing on the leaves of fast-growing or slow-growing tree species, or on leaves with different concentrations of elements such as nitrogen or phosphorus.

"Because of the importance of the microbiome for the growth and function of the host, understanding the factors that influence bacteria on the leaves of different trees could have important implications for our ability to model and conserve biological diversity and ecosystem function," Kembel said. "Ultimately, we hope that understanding the factors that explain variation in bacterial abundances across host species will help us better manage biological diversity in forests and the health and function of forest ecosystems."

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

Proteins: Good networkers make prime targets

Proteins form either small or large networks to perform their functions. How these protein networks are subverted by pathogens, has been investigated on a plant model by a research team. Distinct pathogens like fungi and bacteria were found to use the same tactic, launching targeted attacks on highly networked proteins that have multiple functions. The researchers' findings are published in the current issue of Cell Host & Microbe.

Proteins are responsible for practically all vital functions in an organism. For example, they catalyze metabolic reactions, forward signals, transport particular substances and control immune system responses. Researchers established some years ago that proteins do not function independently of each other, but instead form complex networks.

"When you examine the protein networks, you find many similarities with online social networks," says Dr. Pascal Falter-Braun from TUM's Chair of Plant Systems Biology. "Some proteins are good networkers that maintain contact with many other protein molecules, while others are less interactive."

Different pathogens attack the same targets

By studying the plant model Arabidopsis thaliana (thale cress), the researchers found that pathogens specifically targeted the highly networked proteins. "We were surprised that pathogens as biologically dissimilar as bacteria and fungi manipulate the same proteins," Falter-Braun continues. These include proteins which control important processes in the cells, for example the transcription factors which activate genes for the production of new proteins.

It has been known for some time that these "hubs" are important for the entire network since they coordinate and synchronize distict processes. "The aim of pathogens is to weaken their host as much as possible, so they try to attack and take over the control centers of the cell, in other words the proteins with the most 'friends' in the network," explains Falter-Braun.

Control centers are largely unchanged

The central role of these proteins is also reflected in the fact that they have barely evolved over time. When organisms evolve, minor mutations can lead to changes in their molecules. If this results in an advantage for the particular organism, it is likely that the new properties will be passed on to its offspring.

In the case of highly networked proteins, such changes rarely occur, as Falter-Braun explains: "Since these proteins occupy such a central position in the network, it is very difficult for them to change without this having a negative impact on the plant." It appears that the pathogens exploit this evolutionary conservation by targeting proteins that do not change -- and therefore cannot elude the intruders.

Assistance from the network

At the same time, the networks appear to be structured in a way that helps them effectively defend the vulnerable hubs. The proteins that are particularly 'attractive' to the pathogens often have neighbors with mutations that are well tolerated by the network. Further study is required in order to understand how this "neighborhood watch" works and whether the network provides other defense mechanisms.

The fact that different pathogens attack the same proteins in the plant could open the door to cultivating crop plants that are more resistant. Whether the results can be transferred to other organisms -- and even to humans -- is a question that will require further research. "Since human proteins have undergone the same evolutionary processes, it is perfectly possible that the findings will apply to humans, too," concludes Falter-Braun.

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The above story is based on materials provided by Technische Universitaet Muenchen . Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

How bacteria ward off viruses: New molecular machinery discovered

When this week's print issue of the journal Science comes out, a collective cheer will go up from New Mexico, Montana and even the Netherlands, thanks to the type of collaborative effort that is more and more the norm in these connected times. Yes, the research was brilliant, and if we're lucky, it will produce innovations in biology, medicine, biotechnology and agriculture. It could save lives, and it happened because this scientist talked with that one, that one knew another one, and brilliant minds overcame geographic distance to advance human understanding.

"It is tremendously exciting working with researchers around the world, helping them apply the software and algorithms that we have developed to see the inner workings of molecular machines," said Thomas Terwilliger, a senior Los Alamos scientist and Laboratory Fellow.

In this case, researchers at Montana State University have provided the first blueprint of a bacterium's "molecular machinery," showing how bacterial immune systems fight off the viruses that infect them. By tracking down how bacterial defense systems work, the scientists can potentially fight infectious diseases and genetic disorders. The key is a repetitive piece of DNA in the bacterial genome called a CRISPR, for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats.

The bacterial genome uses the CRISPR to capture and "remember" the identity of an attacking virus, and now the scientists have created programmable molecular scissors, called nucleases, that are being exploited for precisely altering the DNA sequence of almost any cell type of interest.

The Los Alamos National Laboratory connection is the development of some terrifically clever software, called SOLVE/RESOLVE and PHENIX, in the protein structure analysis of the nuclease. That, connected with the science-community outreach whereby Los Alamos worked directly with structural biologists worldwide on their problems, helped it all come together. Determining the structure of the nuclease is key to understanding its function.

Los Alamos creates advanced algorithms for determining the structures of proteins and other macromolecules, and the software that makes these algorithms easy to use for thousands of structural biologists worldwide. The Laboratory partners with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Duke and Cambridge universities to create Phenix, a user-friendly and comprehensive software system that guides users through all the complicated steps necessary to determine the 3-D structure of their macromolecule.

"One of the best parts of working on the Phenix software is that there is a close-knit team of 15 researchers who work closely together, emailing each other many times every day, to make the software work as smoothly and effectively as possible," said Terwilliger.

"Some 13,000 scientific papers have used our SOLVE/RESOLVE and Phenix software," Terwilliger said, and Los Alamos researchers teach crystallographic methods and software tips extensively at scores of workshops around the world. The software licenses, through technology transfer programs, have generated approximately $3M in licensing revenue.

With the new Montana-based research, "therapies that were unimaginable may be possible in the future," said Blake Wiedenheft, senior author of the paper and assistant professor in MSU's Department of Microbiology and Immunology. "We know the genetic basis for many plant, animal, and human diseases, and these CRISRP-associated nucleases are now being used in research settings to surgically remove or repair defective genes."

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Airbus Patents a VR Helmet That’ll Make You Forget You’re on a Plane

Airbus has filed a patent for helmets to provide "sensorial isolation."

Airbus has filed a patent for helmets to provide “sensorial isolation.” US Patent Office

In a world where economy-class seats are getting thinner and lavatories are shrinking, any flight longer than an hour can feel like a traveling prison. Aircraft manufacturer Airbus is abetting the shift, but a recent patent filing shows it hasn’t forgotten about you, the passenger who actually has to sit in these miserable flying cells. It’s considering helmets that will let you forget you’re in an airplane at all.

Flying can be boring or stressful, which is why airlines provide music, movies and bad TV. The next step appears to be thoroughly immersing passengers in what they’re watching. “The helmet in which the passenger houses his/her head offers him/her sensorial isolation with regard to the external environment,” reads the patent filing.

The helmets feature headphones to provide music. You can watch movies (perhaps in 3D) on the “opto-electronic” screen or possibly through “image diffusion glasses.” If you want to get some work done, turn on the virtual keyboard, which appears on your tray, don a pair of motion capture gloves, and type away. The helmet could even pipe in different odors for an olfactory treat, and the whole thing would be nicely ventilated.

There are various ways to wear the helmet, and the screen would go up and down.

There would be various ways to wear the helmet, and the screen would go up and down. US Patent Office

The idea, definitely in a preliminary stage, is both horrifying and brilliant. Horrifying, because flying already stinks and the need to strap on a virtual reality helmet to make you forget just how hellish it is feels like a creepy add-on. Brilliant, because there’s no reason to expect economy class to become pleasant anytime soon, and the people packed into those thin, confining seats already look for ways to distract themselves. Thus, eye masks and noise-canceling headphones. Virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift promise great things. If people are getting excited about wearing headsets that let them play sweet games, why wouldn’t they want to use them while traveling?

Don’t expect the helmets anytime soon, though. This is merely a patent filing, and an Airbus rep says the company isn’t doing anything to bring the idea to market; it’s just protecting its IP. Beyond that, adding something like this would require navigating an American Ninja Warrior-level obstacle course of regulations governing absolutely everything about civil aviation. Then, airlines would have to want to buy them. Cost aside, the added weight (read: higher fuel bill) makes it a hard sell, especially since passengers can entertain themselves quite nicely with an iPad or, for the Luddites, a book.

If Airbus does bring this to market, it should include a setting to virtually transport yourself to first class.

Fig. 14 shows glasses that could be included with the helmet. You can see how air would circulate in Fig. 15, and the keyboard in Fig. 16.

Fig. 14 shows the “image diffusion glasses” that could be included with the helmet. You can see how air would circulate in Fig. 15, and the virtual keyboard in Fig. 16. US Patent Office

Now You Can Take a Free Y Combinator Startup Course Online


Courtesy Y Combinator

Tech accelerator Y Combinator has given birth to so many of the country’s most successful startups—reddit, Dropbox, and Airbnb, to name a few—that it’s sometimes tough to remember that Y Combinator is a business in its own right. And nearly 10 years after it was founded, it’s a business that’s expanding in new ways.

On Tuesday, Y Combinator president Sam Altman announced that the Mountain View-based accelerator is launching a free online course on how to start a startup, which will feature lessons from the likes of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, big-name venture-capitalist Marc Andreessen, and Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham himself. Altman, who is also teaching a face-to-face course on the subject at Stanford, says he hopes the lessons will vastly increase the accelerator’s reach and double the pool of people who are inspired to launch businesses.

“I think there are a lot of people, who are exceptionally talented, who could be wonderful entrepreneurs, but for one reason or another—life circumstances, where they were born in the world, who their parents were—never think of it as a viable option,” Altman says. “I’d like to reach those people.”

The move is just another sign that change is afoot at Y Combinator. Since taking over from Graham as president earlier this year, Altman has made it clear that he wants to expand Y Combinator, not only in terms of the number of people it reaches, but also in terms of the scope and complexity of the companies it takes on.

This new direction reflects a larger trend in the tech industry, in which many critics have grown tired of these ubiquitous accelerators.

That mission was apparent at Y Combinator’s most recent demo day, where, among the usual consumer web and mobile apps, were audacious companies like Helion Energy, a nuclear fusion startup, Gingko Bioworks, a genetic engineering company, and Immunity Project, a nonprofit working on a free vaccine for HIV/AIDS. And last week, Y Combinator recommitted to this mission in its annual Request for Startups, in which the accelerator delineates the industries it’s particularly interested in. This batch focuses on “breakthrough technologies,” calling for startups working in fields as diverse as pharmaceuticals, human augmentation, virtual reality, and technology for the developing world.

This new direction reflects a larger trend in the tech industry, in which many critics have grown tired of these ubiquitous accelerators and the somewhat homogenous companies they tend to accept. There’s a growing notion – call it, bubblephobia – that accelerators are to blame for glutting the market with frivolous apps, launched by cookie cutter founders, who aren’t really solving the world’s biggest problems. Though Altman rejects that idea, in expanding Y Combinator’s horizons, he certainly seems to be using his time as president to rewrite the definition of the typical tech startup.

“I think it makes a lot of sense for them,” says Alejandro Amezcua, professor of entrepreneurship at Syracuse University, who researches business incubators. “They have so much experience training entrepreneurs and helping them solve problems, especially in the app and software area, it seems to me that maybe they’ve saturated that pretty well. It’s time for them to take on more challenging types of innovations where the success rate might not be as high and hurdles entrepreneurs face may be harder.”

Altman says he came to Y Combinator with the explicit mission of funding more “non-traditional software startups,” inspired by the fact that public funding for research and development has dwindled in recent years. “We need private companies to pick up the slack,” Altman says. So he and his Y Combinator partners came up with an all but exhaustive list of world problems they’d like to see more startups tackling.

Of course, the question remains whether Y Combinator is, in fact, the best place to launch the next big biotech company. After all, one reason the accelerator is so good at launching software companies is because it has software expertise to spare. Y Combinator’s relative inexperience is likely to inspire doubt from traditional research institutions about the accelerator’s ability to truly vet and develop these complex companies. “Any time you have a change in the approach that people take, you’re going to get strong reactions. My guess is you’ll see that here,” says Chris Laing, vice president of science and technology at the University City Science Center incubator in Philadelphia.

‘Any time you have a change in the approach that people take, you’re going to get strong reactions.’

Still, others say that approaching these entrenched industries from the outside can be beneficial. “I think it’s an advantage to look at problems with a fresh eye and not have a committee of guys that all came from pharma, and automotive, and energy,” says Bill Lee, a venture capitalist who has funded companies like Tesla and SpaceX.

Altman, for one, says he knows his ambitions may be perceived as na├»ve. “I just hope it’s the charming sort of naivete, and not the annoying kind,” he says, adding that while Y Combinator has plenty of in-house expertise in some of these subjects, he hopes to bring on more partners as the companies become more diverse.

But for someone who seems to have such a grand vision for the future of not only Y Combinator, but of the entire tech industry, Altman says his goal in all this is surprisingly simple: to help a lot of entrepreneurs. “Starting a company is such an improbably difficult thing to accomplish,” he says. “If we can change that, then I think we can make a lot more startups happen, and if a lot more startups happen, some of them will change the world.”

Track Your Sleep and Activity on the Cheap With Misfit’s ‘Flash’

The Misfit Flash activity tracker is a more colorful, polycarbonate version of the Shine.

The Misfit Flash activity tracker is a more colorful, polycarbonate version of the Shine. Misfit Wearables

Your average wrist-worn fitness tracker, a molded piece of rubber with a handful of accelerometers and gyroscopes inside, costs around $100 at the low-end. For someone who’s not sure if they need or want such a device, that’s pretty steep. Misfit Wearables, which debuted its first fitness tracker, the Shine, last year, is lowering that barrier with a new option called Flash.

Priced at $50, it’s cheaper even than erstwhile cheapie Fitbit Zip. Like the latter, the Flash tracks steps, distance, and calories. Unlike the Zip, it also tracks sleep, as well as swimming and cycling activities with help from its companion smartphone app. In the app, you can set what activity you’re about to do, and when you press and hold the Flash’s button, it starts tracking.

Flash shares similar styling with the Shine, but rather than a machined aluminum face in the center of its band, it has a less costly polycarbonate casing. The interface is also the same as the Shine, a ring of LEDs that light up to indicate how active you’ve been that day, or to display the time as a minimalist clock. Instead of double tapping to bring its hidden LEDs to life, you press its front face down like you would a button (essentially, the coin-like circular device is just one big button).

The tracker requires no charging as it’s powered by a replaceable coin-cell battery. It syncs with Misfit’s iOS and Android apps, so you can track the progress of your daily movement and sleep quality there as well. Your progress towards your daily activity and sleep goals are visualized in a variety of charts, including circular daily progress charts that echo the device’s circular interface. Like Shine, Flash is also waterproof up to 30 meters.

The $50 Misfit Flash will be available for pre-order starting today, and will be available at retailers like Best Buy, Target, and Amazon in October.

An Artistic Retreat Trains Young Musicians in the Philippines

The remote coastal jungle surrounding the town of San Antonio, located in the Philippine state of Zambales, has not traditionally received much attention in the global cultural conversation. San Antonio, after all, is little more than a few square blocks of quiet homes at the foot of volcanic foothills. Motorized tricycles transport fishermen to and from the beach for 80 cents; the two-mile road is lined with ash-sand from Mt. Pinatubo’s 1991 eruption.

Along this road lies an incongruous complex of buildings sprawled across a 3-hectare patch of land. The grounds are meticulously landscaped – dirt paths swept with reed brooms, lawn cut by hand with massive scissors – a Home & Garden spread waiting to happen. This is the Casa San Miguel, an organization devoted to the artistic education of rural Zambales, a poor community that offers its youth few economic opportunities.

The centerpiece of the Casa is its educational programs: a village school for seven year-olds, and an arts-based crash course in music, visual arts, creative writing, and sculpture for older students. 40 kids enter the 10-week program twice per year, while 100 participate in the 6-week summer camp. The students pay nothing, and operational costs are covered by donor support and the complex’s revenue streams. (The Casa also has two cafes, four residence rooms for rent, and an outdoor museum of community heritage.)

The present-day establishment rose from the ashes of a 1940s mango orchard estate, founded by the well-traveled violinist Ramon Corpas in the image of Californian fruit plantations. When a fire ravaged the compound in the early 1990s, brother and sister proprietors Alfonso and Plet Bolipata seized on an opportunity to form the Casa San Miguel Foundation, welcoming the first class of wide-eyed students in 1994. Alfonso retains the titles of director and CEO, while Plet recently moved back to the premises after spending most of her artistic career in the United States and Manila. Her home, which she shares with fellow Philippine modern artist Elmer Borlongan, is an eccentric maze of carefully curated objects next door to the Foundation’s main building.

The Casa calls to mind two modern cultural currents: the remote artistic retreats of Marfa or Taos, as well as the arts-education-as-development programs of El Sistema in Venezuela or Haiti’s INUMAH. By relocating to San Antonio, the Bolipata siblings have experienced a creative renaissance and used their cultural cache to talk their peers into extended residencies: musicians from Julliard, Russian opera singers, and writer Dave Eggers have all visited. But perhaps more significantly, the Foundation has worked with hundreds of students, offering an unexpected, illuminating hope of artistic expression and internationalism.

Rowena Lipata has had two sons complete the music program; they subsequently performed in China and Indonesia, and are currently working toward college degrees. “Without the Casa, I can’t provide the means for higher education for them,” Lipata explains. “I don’t know where they’d be without it.” After seeing the transformative effect music had on her children’s dispositions and the doors it opened, Lipata has signed on as a student this fall.

Plet Bolipata views the music more as a tool than an end in itself; she’s not in the business of identifying and developing child prodigies. “Some of our students go into nursing, others into business,” she explains, “so it’s not all music. What the music does is provide a vision, it gives them dreams, and it gives them a chance to go abroad.”

The frequent concerts have introduced the villagers to new sounds and unexpected experiences. “Some of the villagers didn’t quite understand what watching a concert was all about,” she says, noting creative approaches to snacking and clapping. “But their eyes have been opened, their lifestyles have been enhanced.”

A Radical New Way to Collaborate, From the Makers of ‘Paper’

Mix is a sort of utopian vision of digital collaboration, where everything is free for the taking and remaking.

Mix is a sort of utopian vision of digital collaboration, where everything is free for the taking and remaking. FiftyThree

An empty canvas is great if you’ve got the imagination to do something with it. Sometimes, though, it takes a little push to get the creative mojo going.

That’s the thinking behind Mix, a new collaborative platform from FiftyThree, makers of the popular iPad sketching app, Paper. Built right into the app, it’s based around a continuously expanding pool of shared content that’s available for anyone to mix, remix, and draw inspiration from. The whole thing is based on a sort of utopian vision of digital creativity. Everything in Mix is available for you to rework as you wish, and everything you rework becomes available for others in the same way.

How Can You Increase Smart Phone Battery Life?

I Photo

Image: Rhett Allain

Smart phones aren’t really phones. They are small personal computers that you can carry around with you. They just happen to also make phone calls – but that’s not what most people use them for. Yes, these tiny computers are awesome and useful – but there is a downside. The battery life is terrible. The only way I can make it through a day without an extra charge is to just not use the phone.

Possibly the two things people want in a new phone are better battery life and a better camera. But how could the battery life of a phone get better? There are only a few things that could change. Let me go over the options.

Bigger Batteries

Suppose your phone runs for 5 hours if you are continuously using it. How could you make it run for a longer time? You could put in a bigger capacity battery. Before the iPhone 6, all the previous iPhones had about a 1500 mAh lithium-ion battery. What is “mAh”? This is short for milli-Amp hours. So a 1 mAh battery could produce 1 milliamp of current for 1 hour. Yes, it’s measure of the energy stored in the battery. You can find out exactly how much energy if you know the battery voltage. For the iPhone 5s, it has a 1570 mAh battery with a voltage of 3.8 Volts. If you know the voltage and the current then the power and energy would be:

La te xi t 1

If I know the current in milliamps and the time in hours, I can use this to get the following expression for the energy in a battery (in Joules). Here is how you would do that calculation for the energy in the iPhone 5s battery.

La te xi t 1

Ok, that seems like a large amount of energy but maybe it’s not enough (well, it’s not enough for me). What if you put a bigger battery in the phone? Wouldn’t a 3,000 mAh battery last about twice as long? Yes, I think it probably would. However, there’s a problem. If you use the same kind of battery it would be about twice as large and twice as heavy. It might not be exactly twice the size since a larger battery can have a smaller percent of size devoted to the outer cover and other required components – but you get the idea.

There is one way to deal with a bigger battery that doesn’t make everyone hate the phone – make a bigger phone. If you have a larger phone, some things don’t change size – like the processor and the camera. Sure, the screen gets bigger (and uses more energy) but you can still put a larger battery in there. Look at the iPads. They are much larger than an iPhone and they seem to have fairly decent battery life. Maybe the iPhone 6 Plus will have super awesome battery life (Apple claims it will be better). Just to be safe, Apple should send me one so I can test it.

Higher Battery Energy Density

Just about all phones use lithium-ion battery. These have about 4.32 MJ/L (mega Joules per liter). Yes – energy density is the energy stored per unit volume. I’m not sure why, but it seems that a common symbol for energy density is u and is defined as:

La te xi t 1

It’s just like mass density except that it’s for energy. There is also the specific energy. This tells you the energy per unit mass – but I’m not too concerned about the mass of my phone (but volume is important).

Where could you find the energy densities for different storage solutions? Of course Wikipedia has you covered. Here are some interesting energy densities:

  • Gasoline = 32.4 MJ/L

  • Lithium-ion = 0.9-2.63 MJ/L

  • Lead Acid Battery = 0.34 MJ/L

  • Sandwich = 10.13 MJ/L (whoever added this to the Wikipedia page is a genius)

  • Antimatter = 9.266 x 10104 MJ/L

If you want to keep your phone battery the same size but increase the energy storage, you will need to find something with a higher energy density. Right now, Lithium-ion is the best we can do for a battery. It seems safe to bet that in the near future humans could find something in the 5 MJ/L range for a battery, but that will still just bump the battery life up by a factor of 2. Twice the battery life would be good, but I would like something even more impressive.

A phone that runs on sandwiches would last about 5 times as long as a Lithium-ion powered phone. Of course you would have a tiny little sandwich in your phone and you would need a tiny little stomach to go with it. On the downside, you would have to take your phone to the bathroom at least once a day or deal with it pooping in your pocket (that would be awkward). Oh, don’t forget to feed your phone. It would probably take less time to feed a phone than it would to recharge a battery.

What about an antimatter powered phone? If you had the same size antimatter battery as in your current phone, it would last about 10100 years. Just for comparison, the Universe is most likely 14 billion (14 x 109) years old. Now, don’t get all excited. There is still the problem of taking antimatter annihilation energy and turning it into electricity to run your phone. It would either require much more space or the radiation might kill you. Still, the phone should at least run until Apple announces the iPhone 22sd Plus in the year 2034.

More Efficient Phones

What if you keep the phone the same size with the same battery? Can you still make the phone last longer? Yes. You could make a phone that uses less energy. Maybe the display is more efficient or maybe the processor is better – but either way if a phone uses less energy it will last longer. I think this is essentially what has happened with some of the newer laptops that have a 10 hour battery life. The battery in these laptops aren’t really that much bigger but the processors are more efficient.

Recharging While You Go

What if the phone was recharging all the time while you were using it? Of course you would need some type of external power source – but maybe that would work. Here are some options.

Recharging by Typing. What if each time you pushed on the phone to type, it turned that into energy that charged the phone? It seems like a great idea, but I looked at this before – it wouldn’t work. You just don’t get enough energy from each “push” to make this method work.

Solar Charging. If your phone had a solar panel all over the case, it could charge from the sunlight. In a previous post, I looked at the “best case” for solar charging. If you left the phone in direct sunlight (and facing the Sun), you could charge it in 4 hours. That’s the best case. Realistically, this could extend the battery life a little bit.

Charging with Sound. Think of sound waves as oscillations in air pressure (since that’s what it actually is). These changes in air pressure could push on the phone in a very similar way that your finger pushes on the phone while typing. Are you surprised that I already looked at this charging method? The best case scenario for charging by sound would take over 100 days to charge a phone using conversation level noise. Unless you plan on living at a construction site or at a rock concert, this method is useless.

Kinetic Charging. There are some mechanical watches that don’t need to powered throw winding. Instead there is a mass on a spring inside the watch. Just through the process of wearing the watch, this mass-spring gets moved around to store energy in the watch. You could do something similar for electric watches. A magnet moving through a coil of wire can also generate an electric current. Could this work in a phone? I’m going to say “no”. I looked at this same idea for smart watches and it’s just not going to produce enough energy to make a difference.

Wireless Charging. Wireless charging is already “a thing”. In fact, the Apple Watch will use wireless charging. It sounds cool, but it’s not going to be that helpful for smart phones. I have a nice summary of the physics involved in wireless charging (inductive charging) – but the key point is that you have to have the device and the charger close to each other. It’s not a long range thing. Wireless charging could make a big impact though. Since it means you don’t need a charging cable, you could have ubiquitous charging. You can put your phone down on the table or in your car and BOOM – it’s charging. That would be nice.

The Future of Phone Batteries

In the end, I think the best solution is a mixture. If we can make higher energy density batteries (which we can) and we can make more efficient processor (which we can), the combination of these two should make a phone that at leasts last through the day. I welcome that phone.