Sprint Has Officially Saved RadioShack From Extinction

A RadioShack store in Dallas, Feb. 3, 2015. A RadioShack store in Dallas, Feb. 3, 2015. Tony Gutierrez/AP

A US bankruptcy court has approved a plan to save RadioShack’s remaining retail stores.

RadioShack, founded in 1921 to serve the then emerging radio equipment market, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in February. But some RadioShack stores will survive after the company was bought by hedge fund Standard General. In keeping the stores open, Standard is sharing store space with wireless carrier Sprint. As reported by Reuters, the stores will carry both the Radio Shack and Sprint names, and Sprint will occupy about a third of each store.

The deal came Tuesday amidst protests from lenders that could have killed RadioShack’s chances for survival. Reuters explains that RadioShack was forced to finalize a deal by April because Chapter 11 give companies only a few months to break leases, which is critical for retailers. Only about 1,740 of RadioShack’s more than 4,000 stores have survived the bankruptcy. But the new deal is expected to save as many as 7,500 RadioStack jobs still in place.

According to Reuters, RadioShack’s largest lender, Salus Capital Partners, opposed the Standard General deal, claiming that it had made a more lucrative bid for the retailer’s assets. Judge Brendan Shannon, who decided the case, disagreed. Although the Salus bid may have offered more cash, Shannon determined that Standard General’s bid, which included significant debt forgiveness, was superior.

Amazon was reportedly in talks to buy some of RadioShack’s stores last year, but if true, the talks didn’t result in any acquisitions.

Mobilizing the Planet’s Genetic Diversity with Synthetic Biology

Polyurethane, made possible by synthetic biology, could end up in a skateboard near you (Image: Flickr/dcysurfer). Polyurethane, made possible by synthetic biology, could end up in a skateboard near you (Image: Flickr/dcysurfer).

1,4-Butanediol isn’t exactly the flashiest product on the market: with a four-carbon chain bounded by alcohol groups, the thick, colorless liquid is one of those “industrial chemicals” that makes the eyes glaze over. But the diminutive molecule is worth some serious cash, with an estimated global market cap of $2 billion. Ultimately, 1,4-butanediol, also known as BDO, facilitates the production of a range of plastics, polyurethanes, and elastic fibers, making everything from skateboards to Spandex possible.

In a story that is increasingly pervasive in the field of molecular synthesis, BDO’s chemical production protocol – typically involving toxic reactants like formaldehyde – is being challenged by a biological approach. Several years ago, Genomatica secured a patent for “a non-naturally occurring microbial organism” that contains five exogenous genes “expressed in sufficient amounts to produce 1,4-BDO”.

To Axel Trafzer, a Director of R&D in ThermoFisher’s Synthetic Biology unit, U.S. patent number 8067214 represented an important step for an evolving field, a step that was made possible through gene synthesis technologies. To design their BDO production pathway, Genomatica researchers looked for enzymes that could accomplish each reaction and placed them together into a stable host microorganism. With control over the sequences being used, the whole process took just a few years.

This rapid march to market was not the norm for an industry dominated by corporate behemoths. A decade earlier, in the late 1990s, DuPont engineered a microbe to produce a similar chemical, 1,3-propanediol. But it took more than a decade, according to Trafzer’s estimate, “because they worked a lot more with natural sequences, strain optimization, and much more trial and error.” With a design perspective enabled by gene synthesis, however, Genomatica “was much faster in the process from idea to commercially viable product,” notes Trafzer.

Cases like BDO production demonstrate the fact that a wide range of the planet’s genetic diversity is newly accessible in the service of biomolecule synthesis. In the past, only genes from well-understood, culturable organisms could be manipulated, and even then the process was cumbersome. But as DNA sequencing and synthesis technologies have advanced, “a lot of the sequences people use in these synthetic biology projects,” says Trafzer, “come from difficult-to-cultivate organisms or from metagenomic sequences” that are pulled out of a more complicated microbial mixture.

Despite its growing track record, DNA synthesis is still an emerging field, and ThermoFisher is eager to grow the community of users, realizing that a rising tide lifts all boats. “There is still a significant group of the market that is just discovering the abilities you have with synthetic DNA,” says Trafzer, “and we understand that there’s a whole range of customers on the spectrum, migrating away from classical approaches.” To ease the transition, the company created the first online portal for gene ordering, a functionality that has now been widely adopted. Upon receipt, the sequence is run through biosafety and biosecurity checks, and ultimately constructed through the enzymatic assembly of shorter oligonucleotide chains.

This unparalleled freedom has created a new sense of biological possibility. “Modifying a physical template by PCR or mutagenesis only allows you to make a limited number of changes,” Trafzer explains, “but de novo writing of biological information has completely opened up how far you can think, and how far you can go.”

*This article is part of a special series on DNA synthesis and was previously published at SynBioBeta, the activity hub for the synthetic biology industry.

Are Microbes the Taste-Makers of the Future?

Vanilla seed pods may be circumvented through synthetic biology (Image: Flickr/ted_major). Vanilla seed pods may be circumvented through synthetic biology (Image: Flickr/ted_major).

On its journey from plant to ice cream cone, vanilla travels thousands of miles. Shady fields of waist-high vines in Madagascar, the South Pacific, or Latin America produce valuable fruit, which is cured, oxidized, and dried in an intensive sequence of events lasting several weeks. It’s then shipped to markets around the world, just as it has been for centuries.

The vast majority of the vanillin found in today’s products – from food to perfume – is derived from synthetic processes that convert guaiacol to vanillin in a three-step process. Both the natural and chemical methods are costly and environmentally burdensome, but a new approach using the advances of synthetic biology offers a promising third way. Starting with glucose, yeast is able to “ferment it just like beer,” explains Kevin Munnelly, CEO of the biotech company Gen9. “It’s the first flavor made by synthetic biology, and it’s entering commercial viability.”

To get to this point, genes for three enzymes from three different organisms – a dung mold, a bacterium, and humans – were inserted into the yeast cells. In Munnelly’s view, the construction of an engineered pathway to produce a high-value molecule such as vanillin is an important success story in the synthetic biology community. Given the multitude of biosynthetic and energy-procuring reactions taking place at any given time, the prospect of re-ordering metabolites and reaction steps in a rational manner is often over-optimistic. After all, a cell’s priority is to survive and replicate, not to produce tasty ice cream, but in the case of vanillin, the bioengineering team was able to accomplish both aims.

Predicting exactly how to achieve this tenuous balance between sustainable cell survival and product generation is challenging, but with reliable and affordable DNA synthesis, experimenters need not restrict themselves to a single attempt. “We can make a variety of different gene constructs, so you don’t have to pick just a few options to test,” says Munnelly. “And it’s an iterative process – we can do this quickly, so the results can feed back into the design.”

To achieve scale and speed in its DNA synthesis process, Gen9 adheres to an important mantra: avoid sequencing. Under the traditional gene production regime, oligos are stitched together, “and if you haven’t used error correction,” warns Munnelly, “you have a certain percentage of the population that is wrong. If you then have to put something into an organism and pick colonies and send them through a sequencing pipeline, it’s a really expensive process.” Gen9’s error evaluation approach uses the MutS enzyme to identify nucleotide bases that differ from the population’s consensus, and then repair the mismatches. “If the screening is cheap then you can make a lot of variants,” says Munnelly, which in turn allows researchers to query a wider range of products.

As synthetic pathways enter the industrial pipeline, Munnelly predicts that other products will join vanilla on the synthetic biology-produced shelf. Gen9 customers are actively developing fragrances, cosmetics, and other spices like saffron. “We have a much better understanding now of some of the complexities of how these processes work,” he says. “It’s getting more straightforward, and there will be many products to come.”

*This article is part of a special series on DNA synthesis and was previously published at SynBioBeta, the activity hub for the synthetic biology industry.

Gmail Update Will Wrangle All Your Accounts Into One Inbox

In a long-overdue universal inbox move, you can use the Gmail app for Android as a single hub for nearly all your webmail accounts. You could do this already by adding accounts to the Gmail app, but now you can view all your disparate inboxes in one steady stream.

The app’s new “All Inboxes” option collects all your messages in one place, and you can still see each inbox separately by tapping the bubble icons or using a drop-down menu in the sidebar. To add accounts, you hop into the updated app’s Settings options, select “Add account,” and choose from a simple menu that lets you pick between a Google Apps/Gmail account and an IMAP/POP webmail account. From there, just plug in your Yahoo, AOL, Outlook.com, Hotmail, or MSN.com account—whatever olden-times webmail services people used before Gmail.

This is not exactly a revolutionary development. After all, stock email apps on everything from the iPhone to the BlackBerry let you filter in all your email accounts in one place—with integrated support for Exchange-based work email, to boot. But the new Gmail app’s secret sauce is that it brings elements of the Gmail interface to these external accounts.

For example, conversation view can be applied to those external emails, just as if they were native Gmail messages. And, of course, you can star them and add them to folders, albeit only the folders tied to that external account. You can’t, say, move an incoming Yahoo email to one of your Gmail folders.

That’s one of a few missing options that would be helpful, including as being able to toggle between email addresses when you’re replying to a message. There’s still no integrated Exchange support, but you can download a separate APK to add that feature to the mix. That’s an extra step if you want to feed in work emails coming from Exchange servers. But these days, with more and more businesses using Google Apps for Business and Gmail for Work, it may not matter for your needs.

According to Google, there are a few more enhancements in the new Gmail for Android app—it’s not available on iOS—including improved auto-complete performance and a new “Save to Google Drive” icon in the top right nav bar. The company says the update will be rolling out on Google Play over the next few days. If you just can’t wait, an APK is available now.

The Oddly Compelling Spaceship Commercials of Star Citizen

“Speed is more than a number,” booms the narrator of the video clip. “It’s a state of being. Speed is a shock to the soul. Speed is a call to action.” Everything about the clip puts you in mind of commercials for luxe sports cars: the portentous tone, the pensive musical score, the slick editing, the luscious images of light playing over gleaming metal. But the video actually touts the merits of a line of virtual spaceships from the game Star Citizen.

The massively multiplayer sci-fi combat and exploration game is the brainchild of Chris Roberts, who pioneered the space sim genre with Wing Commander and Freelancer before decamping to Hollywood to work as a producer on films like Lord of War and The Punisher.

Star Citizen marks his return to games, and even though it’s still deep in development, players can already purchase the fighters, freighters, bombers, and capital ships that they’ll eventually be able to use to traverse its persistent universe… once that persistent universe is finished. (At present, it’s only possible to pilot some of the smaller spaceships in a dogfighting mode.)

The commercials are the closest thing Star Citizen has to a conventional advertising campaign. But they’re part of the reason that the game has become the biggest crowdfunding project in history, raising over $75 million since it launched in October of 2012.

Roberts’ development studio Cloud Imperium hires top sci-fi conceptual artists to design the virtual spaceships. “People like Ryan Church who worked on Star Wars and the rebooted Star Trek films, and George Hull, who did stuff for the Matrix movies and the new Star Wars,” he says.

“The commercials are a way to highlight the the love and attention we put into the ships in a fun in-fiction way,” Roberts says. Each video is presented as if it was an actual spaceship commercial from the 30th century, produced by one of more than 10 spaceship manufacturers that exist in the fiction of the game world. The commercials are realistic in every detail, down to having “©MMCMXLV” appear onscreen. (How terrible to imagine that the current copyright regime is unchanged in the year 2945.)

Roberts says that the purpose of the ads is not just to convince people to pre-purchase ships. They also give people a compelling glimpse of what they’ll be able to do in the finalized version of the game. All this, while also lampooning the conventions of car commercials.

“I loved watching the fake commercials in the original Verhoeven version of Robocop,” he says. “Like the one for the 6000 SUX, or the Mutally Assured Destruction board game where the kids are nuking each other. We wanted some of that kind of fun.” Some Star Citizen ads also make tongue-in-cheek pop cultural references to things like Top Gear, Guardians of the Galaxy, and 2001.

What’s next for Star Citizen spaceship commercials? Roberts says that an upcoming ad for a multicrew heavy bomber will venture even further afield from standard promotional formats. “We could just do something boring, like what General Dynamics would make if they wanted to sell hardware to the Chinese military,” says Roberts. “But we thought it would be more fun to do an ad that’s like a snippet from a World at War-style documentary, like something you’d see on the History channel. Like, you’re hearing an interview with a veteran who saw the ship flying in, and was rescued by it.”

“Another ad I’d love to parody is the Volvo Trucks one with Jean Claude Van Damme doing the splits,” says Roberts. “That’s genius, just a classic example of something supercool that went viral. Maybe we can do something like that with two Starfarers…”

Here are the best six Star Citizen ship commercials so far.

SHIP: 300 series

MANUFACTURER: Origin Jumpworks

WHAT IT IS: A line of single-person luxury ships

COST: $65 (base model)

THE COMMERCIAL: “The thing you take away from car commercials is emotion,” says Roberts. “We ask ourselves, what is the feeling this ship represents, do I associate it with speed, beauty, or durability?” This particular commercial is modeled on BMW ads voiced by Jon Hamm, and emphasis is on speed and high performance.

SHIP: Freelancer

MANUFACTURER: Musashi Industrial & Starflight Concern (MISC)

WHAT IT IS: A heavy cargo hauler for delivering interstellar shipments

COST: $125

THE COMMERCIAL: A gruff, gravelly voiceover emphasizes the rugged, blue collar nature of the ship. It’s very reminiscent of ads for Ford F150 trucks. “We got Lance Henriksen to do that voice over,” says Roberts. “That’s a total Easter Egg; we didn’t ever publicize his involvement.”

SHIP: Mustang

MANUFACTURER: Consolidated Outland

WHAT IT IS: A line of starter ships focused on speed and maneuverability

COST: $45 to $70

THE COMMERCIAL: Portentous voiceover of a crazy dreamer who’s besotted with the brilliance of his creation. The ships magically assemble themselves around him as he raves about their special qualities. “We wanted a Howard Hughes-y charcter, and I had one of my actor friends come in and do a version of that,” says Roberts.

SHIP: Cutlass

MANUFACTURER: Drake Interplanetary

WHAT IT IS: A patrol ship that’s ostensibly for militias, but is made with the needs of space pirates in mind. (Complete with an extra-large hull for storing loot.)

COST: $115 to $135

THE COMMERCIAL: Space combat is reimagined as a graceful dance, perfectly synchronized to tango music. The ad features a turning-the-invisible-hand-crank-to-flip-the-bird move a la Chris Pratt, and a Metroid-style surprise at the end.

SHIP: Constellation Aquila

MANUFACTURER: Roberts Space Industries

WHAT IT IS: A ship designed for exploration, with a large science bay and a rover that can be deployed when planetside.

COST: $275

THE COMMERCIAL: Everything from the score to the alien creature throwing a bone in the air to the obelisk-like corporate logo invokes 2001: A Space Odyssey. “It’s about the promise of what you can do with the ship, discovering new worlds and finding new things,” says Roberts.

SHIP: M50 Interceptor

MANUFACTURER: Orign Jumpworks GmbH

WHAT IT IS: Racing ship

COST: $100 (limited stock–no longer on offer)

THE COMMERCIAL: A mock review by the opinionated host of a spaceship enthusiast show called Galactic Gear. “It’s a Top Gear parody, and we got someone who sounds kind of close to Jeremy Clarkson to do the voice over,” says Roberts.

An Invisible Spray-On Paint to Keep Bikers Safe at Night

It’s a good time to ride a bike, especially in England. Bike-sharing abounds in London town. By this time next year, the North-South Cycle Superhighway should be open for business. And Volvo just announced LifePaint, a new spray-on visibility enhancer for cyclists that promises to reduce the number of injuries and deaths associated with roadside bike rides.

Volvo’s retro-reflective temporary paint is only available on a trial basis in the UK. It’s not exactly glow-in-the-dark spray, but it works much like the safety tape and the reflective panels sewn into biking and jogging jackets.

The spray-on reflective paint appears to be a simple rebranding of Albedo100’s Invisible Bright product. LifePaint is a branding partnership between Volvo, creative agency Grey London, and, of course, Albedo100. In other words, it’s possible to get a similar (if not identical) product here in the US. It’s just not branded as LifePaint.

According to the Volvo LifePaint and Albedo100 websites, this spray-on product is designed to be applied to textiles and shoes—everything except leather, and it reportedly has a bit of trouble sticking to nylon and plastic. The paint washes out with laundry detergent. There’s an adhesive mixed in that could irritate sensitive skin, and you’re supposed to spray it from a distance to make sure it comes out of clothing after one wash.

A FAQ on the Albedo100 site says the paint is rainproof as long as it’s applied to dry fabric. It’s laundry detergent, not water, that breaks the bond between the paint’s adhesives and your clothing.

Once the paint is applied, it’s purportedly invisible in daylight unless you shine a bright light directly at it. It’s designed to reflect light back towards its source like reflective safety tape. At night, car headlights will ping off the paint and make anything covered with it look like a glowing blob. It’s easy to see a glowing blob.

If you’re wondering why, if LifePaint is intended for fabrics, there’s a brightly glowing bike in its promotional materials, that’s probably a little bit of misdirection on Volvo’s part. Albedo100 also has more permanent solutions in its stable, including “Permanent Metallic,” which is designed to be sprayed onto bikes, signs, and stenciled patterns. That could be what’s lighting up the bike, rather than LifePaint itself.

For what it’s worth, there another water-soluble version of the paint called “Horse and Pets” that you can spray right onto horses, dogs, cats, and other critters that keep running into the road—or that you want to invite to your next rave.

It’s not clear if LifePaint will ever come to the US, but a 4.6oz can of the Albedo100 Invisible Bright, Horse and Pets, or Permanent Metallic spray goes for $19 stateside, while a 2.3oz can of the Invisible Bright sells for $14. Not the cheapest can of spray paint, but more affordable and versatile than buying a similarly glowing Mission Bicycle Co. Lumen.

Assembling a Genome, Piece by Piece

Producing metabolic intermediates may help identify more antibiotics to counter pathogens like MRSA (green cells; image credit Flickr/NIAID) Producing metabolic intermediates may help identify more antibiotics to counter pathogens like MRSA (green cells; image credit Flickr/NIAID)

Metabolic pathways are multi-step endeavors that process one molecule to another, all in the service of cellular health. But not every intermediate waypoint is always seen; they may be consumed quickly as enzymatic reactions progress toward their energy-yielding or food-procuring objectives, rendering potentially useful products invisible to scientists looking for new antibiotics or industrial chemicals. Molecular surveys for these “natural products” soon became redundant; “we were identifying the same compound over and over,” explains Justin Bingham, Director of Business Development at SGI-DNA. “A lot of that is because novel compounds are produced via secondary cryptic pathways, and those compounds are missed in ordinary screens.” To track these molecules down, scientists are now able to clone specific steps of a pathway into a new organism – one whose survival doesn’t depend on the enzymatic product – and collect the previously ephemeral intermediate for downstream tests.

This promising new approach to natural product characterization is becoming increasingly important, as the rate of new antibiotic discoveries has been decreasing. And it requires a lot of novel DNA, as multiple genes are frequently ported into a host organism. To produce these long stretches of sequence, SGI-DNA has automated its Gibson assembly protocol, the game-changing technology that enables pieces of double stranded DNA to be pieced together in a contiguous chain. Double stranded DNA fragments with overlapping sequence stretches are inserted into a reaction, and exonuclease enzymes chew back one end of each piece, exposing complementary sequences that link up, joining the two fragments together. As a result, “you don’t need restriction enzyme sites to leverage insertion of DNA,” says Bingham. “You just need to know what’s upstream and downstream; you can assemble DNA into anything.”

In 2010, researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute (SGI’s non-profit sister organization) made headlines when they inserted a full, synthetically reconstructed Mycoplasma mycoides genome into an inactivated, zombie cell. The cell was revived, prompting hyperbolic cries of the first synthetic life form. It may not have been an entirely lab-created organism, but the implications were profound: scientists were able to recapitulate an entire genome with enough biochemical accuracy to maintain production of all essential – and presumably some non-essential – gene products. The M. mycoides episode served as a method development experiment for the Gibson Assembly, which has subsequently gained favor among researchers working on a range of experiments. Now, with the Gibson ultra method, SGI-DNA is able to sew together up to 15 different fragments – each up to 120 kb in length, or about 120 genes – in a single reaction.

SGI-DNA is also incorporating software-based analyses to mine vast databases of DNA sequence. “We have the ability to archive sequencing projects,” explains Bingham, “and use sophisticated design tools to go back and study how those designs work.” It’s an important acknowledgement that past sequencing efforts produced enormous amounts of incompletely examined data, whose value grows as new information comes to light. And by promoting the Archetype software as a community tool, SGI-DNA is hoping its clients will broaden the search space for enzymes based on patterns between different organisms. “You can basically run large scale comparative genomics across multiple genomes to identify trends,” says Bingham, “and use those trends to make novel designs.”

Then, with tools like the Gibson Assembly, “it becomes very easy to insert variation in a pathway or a genome because you have all the parts,” explains Bingham. “The range of diversity you’ll be able to sample is enormous, and we can’t wait to see what new products the scientific community comes up with.”

*This article is part of a special series on DNA synthesis and was previously published at SynBioBeta, the activity hub for the synthetic biology industry.

This Free Tool Shows What Your Apps Are Doing When You’re Not Looking

SpyAware screen shot. SpyAware screen shot. Ariel Zambelich/WIRED

Do you know what do your phone’s apps do when you’re not using them?

Sure, each time you install an app, your phone tells you what the app can potentially do. But it’s hard to know much about what those apps are actually doing with those permissions. How often do they transmit your location? Are they tracking you even when you’re not using the app? Are they blowing through your data cap by uploading and downloading data behind your back?

A new Android tool called SpyAware aims to shed some light on the situation. It gives you a better idea of what your phone is doing when you’re not looking. No, it doesn’t give you a way of changing an app’s permissions. But unlike XPrivacy and other tools that do, it can run on potentially any Android phone, not just “rooted” phones that give you complete access to a phone’s operating system.

Developed by a Vancouver, Washington based company called Location Sentry, the tool is an effort to increase awareness of what data mobile apps are collecting and how that data is being used. “I think most people would say it’s OK for an app to take some information while they’re using it,” says company co-founder Craig Spiegelberg. “But what they’re discovering is that apps are mining data constantly in the background.”

‘Take Action’

After you install SpyAware, the app gives your phone an overall score based on how at risk the app thinks your device is overall. It also tells you how much data it has been using while you were idle, and which apps were active.

For $3, you can can upgrade to the full version, which is where things get really interesting. You can then see how dangerous SpyAware thinks each app on your phone could be based on “risky” permissions such as the ability to read your text messages, take pictures or record audio. You can also see how much data each app uses, how often it collects your location information, and where it sends data. Importantly, it lets you know what the apps that came preloaded on your phone—the ones that you never gave any permissions to at all—are doing.

If you find an app that you think is particularly suspicious, the “Take Action” screen includes options for uninstalling an app, reporting it to the FCC, leaving a review in Google’s Play Store, or sharing your findings on social media.

Meanwhile, the company has some work to do on making sure that users can trust SpyAware itself. It requires some pretty generous permissions in order to monitor what other apps are doing, and because it’s not open source, you’ve got to just take the company’s word that it’s not going to do anything malicious itself. Spiegelberg says that although the company doesn’t have plans to open source the app at the moment, users will eventually be able to export their usage data, so that they can analyze it on their own. But he does emphasize that Location Sentry never collects or sells its user info.

A Nudge for Apple and Google

The main issue, however, is that if you have an app that’s useful to you but requires excessive permissions, there’s not much you can do other than uninstall it. “If you want an app you’re presented with binary choice,” Spiegelberg says. “I want the app and I accept that they can take more info and use it however they want, or I don’t want the app.”

That’s something Spiegelberg hopes to change in the future. In fact, Location Sentry’s original product was app designed to stop unwanted tracking. But the app required elevated permissions to run correctly, and enabling those permissions—known as rooting—can be a complex process.

Spiegelberg realized that in order to make an app that would appeal to everyone, not just power users, rooting was out of the question. So he and his team conceived of SpyAware as a way to boost awareness of this lack of control. He hopes that eventually Apple, Google and other mobile technology companies will give users more granular control over what permissions they give their apps.

Jay Z’s Tidal Is Great for Artists, But Maybe Not for Fans

Jay Z once bragged that he could sell fire in hell. Well, the music industry has been hell for a while now, and Jigga’s inner salesman is gearing up.

Jay took the stage with a powerhouse stable of artists—Madonna, Jack White, Kanye West, Rihanna, BeyoncĂ©, Alicia Keys, Daft Punk, Coldplay’s Chris Martin—Monday afternoon to announce the re-launch of the music streaming service Tidal. It’s an ambitious endeavor. All of the artists on stage are referred to as “co-owners” of the venture, and they promised—in the words of Keys, who led the remarks during the announcement—”a whole new era” for the music industry.

But a new era for who? On the surface, Tidal offers fans high-fidelity audio and video as well as curated content. But the service—the result of Jay Z’s purchase of streaming music service Aspiro for $56 million earlier this year—is also intended to give artists more control over their content. And that’s great and all, but if artists are forming their own walled garden and charging fans $20 every month for lossless audio ($10 for not-so-high-fidelity tracks), is this service for us, or them?

By offering windows of exclusive access to some artists, Tidal is clearly taking aim at streaming services like Spotify. And it’s true that artists don’t get the best returns when it comes to streaming, as Taylor Swift’s flight from Spotify showed last year. To that end, Jay Z is reportedly offering lots of cash and an equity stake to those who join him, and other artists are being promised double the standard streaming royalties for their music. But if a group of the most popular artists in the world start what is essentially their own label, and then pull their music off of other services, will that service be any better than the music industry it’s trying to unsettle? If it leaves fans with only one place to stream the new record by Rihanna or Kanye West—both of whom coincidentally are supposed to have new albums in the offing—then the answer is “no.”

Fans use streaming as a way to check things out before they buy, or to hear things they wouldn’t pay for otherwise. Trying to turn the new BeyoncĂ© or Kanye West record into the House of Cards of your boutique audio service backfires for that very reason. HoC is/was a new show, one that came as a surprise to Netflix users; but any new project from one of these megastar arists has a built-in fanbase, and those fans are going to get their hands on it no matter what. They’ll either buy the album, which they would probably do anyway, or find another way to hear it: YouTube, BitTorrent, or one of the seemingly endless direct-download services that pop up Whack-A-Mole style to accommodate the resourceful.

Still, the chances of Tidal’s artists taking all of their toys out of the sandbox for good is probably small. It’s still unclear if the “co-owners” of Tidal, or any of the artists who join them, will stream 100% exclusively on the service. And it may never happen. James McQuivey, a music analyst at Forrester Research, notes that while there’s room for an upstart service to elbow its way in to streaming music business with that kind of premium offering, just as Netflix and Amazon have done with TV and movies, artists simply may not be willing to take that kind of risk. (Then again, Swift’s catalog—minus her current hit record 1989—has been streaming on Tidal since last week.)

“Very few artists will follow Taylor Swift’s lead and put all their money on Tidal’s bet, because it doesn’t make rational sense to forgo revenue from other providers while you wait to see if consumers sign up in enough numbers to make you money,” says McQuivey. “Remember, even Sony sells TVs at a discount at Costco because that’s where the people are. Hard to turn your back on customers. And really, do you want to put all your eggs in one basket forever?”

And frankly, for the music industry to grow, it needs as many baskets as possible. A couple of weeks ago, when Kendrick Lamar released his very-anticipated new record To Pimp a Butterfly, the album received 9.6 million plays on Spotify on its first day. A rough estimate turned up that those single-day streams earned between $921,600 and $1,290,240. And those figures are on top of what he made for the 324,000 albums he sold in his first week. Could he have made more with a fancy Tidal deal? Maybe. But considering at least some of those 9.6 million streams came from folks using Spotify’s ad-supported service—a model that Tidal doesn’t offer—it’s next to impossible that he would he have reached as many ears.

Streaming is still music’s best bet for growth; the problem is, the landscape fragmenting into a half-dozen services that each offer its own hodge-podge of artists will only lead to burn-out. People will pick one service—probably the one they’re already using—and just give the finger to the rest. They’ll find what they can on YouTube, buy a few tracks if they can, and that’ll be that. The chances that they’ll sign up for another service just for a few albums is slim.

Then again, this is Jay Z we’re talking about; he may not be able to get you to buy a Samsung Galaxy, but he still sells out stadiums. If anyone can launch a new music service, it’s him and his famous partners. But for now, we wait (and listen). Either people will catch the Tidal wave and buy what he’s selling, or they’ll just burn it down.

How Netflix Will Remake The Image On Your TV

Netflix crystalized the idea of an internet service that streamed unlimited amounts of TV and movies into your home. It redefined television production with House of Cards, bringing a bona fide original series straight to the net. And with documentaries like The Battered Bastards of Baseball, it took the idea of original programming to new heights. But the company isn’t finished.

So many companies are now pushing into the world of internet television, from Amazon to HBO to CBS. But in the foreseeable future, no single outfit will do more to improve your television experience than Netflix. Yes, it will continue to offer new and original series, but more than that, it will change the technology we use to watch shows and movies, pushing things like ultra-high resolution video and a new breed of television that’s better suited to online streaming.

The 4K Front

Netflix was the first company to roll out 4K video, an ultra-high definition image that offers several times the detail of standard HD images. It began offering 4K versions of shows like House of Cards and Breaking Bad nearly a year ago.

Most people don’t have the 4K TVs needed to watch these ultra-high definition shows. But Netflix sees where the world is moving, and unlike others, it’s in a position to accelerate the process. Netflix was the first to roll out 4K, says Avi Greengart, a research director with marker research firm called Current Analysis, because many other didn’t have the option. “It could, and its competitors can’t,” Greengart says. “4K requires more bandwidth than may cable and satellite systems have available.”

The company may also see 4K as a way to push so much data through ISP pipes that its partners have no choice but to sign on to the Netflix Open Connect Initiative, an effort to deliver its shows and movies from machines as close as possible to the viewer. It’s a complicated program, but the bottom line is that Open Connect is a way for Netflix to deliver video without clogging up internet pipes—and without being so dependent on big internet service providers like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T.

The end result is still that Netflix has given the next-generation standard a jumpstart that might otherwise have taken years. “[It] helps solve the chicken-and-egg problem that comes with all new TV technologies,” says Netflix spokesperson Cliff Edwards. “We’re creating a catalog of content people can watch from the very early days of a technology.” If you think that’s not important, the 3DTV industry might disagree.

Is it working? In December, about eight months after Netflix debuted 4K on its service, Amazon followed suit.

Beyond Ultra-High-Definition

But this is merely a first step. Netflix is also pushing what’s called high-dynamic range (HDR) content, which could improve the fidelity of TV shows even more.

HDR sounds like just another buzzword, but like 4K, it can significantly improve your TV viewing experience. Think of it as contrast ratio on steroids. Whites are whiter. Blacks are blacker. And together, they create an image that feels less like the washed out approximation we’re used to and more like being there. Greengart calls the technology the “clean winner” when compared to 4K, in terms of noticeable benefit to the consumer.

The problem, says Greengart, is that the “manufacturing side is a mess,” because HDR requires everyone from content producers to television OEMs to get on board. Dolby has taken a lead on the equipment side with its Dolby Vision initiative, but it will be years before HDR televisions are anything approaching mainstream.

In fact, Greengart says, HDR suffers from chicken-and-egg syndrome even more acutely than 4K. “Display panels are being produced with higher pixel density. A lot of content is produced in 4K or better resolution already for commercial cinemas, 4K TVs have dropped dramatically in price, especially in China,” he explains, ticking off the factors that conspire to make 4K an inevitability. HDR doesn’t have that built-in infrastructure. But it has Dolby, and it has Netflix.

Much like in 4K, Netflix gains the first-mover advantage of not just providing HDR content to early adopters, but being effectively the only provider of any quantity. It’s also a clever bit of future-proofing. If and when HDR does populate our living rooms, Netflix will have a back catalogue of original series like Marco Polo waiting for it.

Must-Stream TV

Netflix is also taking important steps towards fixing the overall streaming TV experience. It doesn’t matter how perfect an image if you can’t effectively stream the thing over the net. That’s why this spring, crammed in next to the contrast ratio claims and output options, you’ll see a new badge adorning the packages for several new televisions: “Netflix Recommended TV.”

Yes, Netflix gives the tag to television manufactures that provide a streaming experience that’s fast and easy to navigate, among other criteria. It encourages one-button Netflix access, but it doesn’t require such a button, and ultimately, the effect of the badge extends well beyond Netflix.

“Smart TVs” are often anything but—a mess of clunky interfaces and buggy experiences that quickly make you realize you should have just bought a Roku. Netflix Recommended TV will give the first-time consumer a ready way to tell good from garbage. And TV manufacturers who keep whiffing with their own home-grown, jerky-jerky software will finally have incentive to either improve or, more likely, bail in favor of partnering with someone who knows what they’re doing.

“The ultimate goal here is to up the game for all Internet television, putting it on a level playing field with internet TV, where you don’t have to change inputs or suffer interminable delays in getting to what you want to watch,” says Netflix’s Edwards. “What benefits us ultimately may benefit some of our competitors—and we’re fine with that.”

In other words, if and when 4K, HDR, and the Netflix Recommended TV program become the gold standard of the television-watching experience, Netflix stands to benefit tremendously, sure. But so do dozens of companies and services that aren’t Netflix. And, most importantly, so do you.

Go Behind the Scenes of Mystery Skulls’ New Gold-Clad Video

The video for Mystery Skulls’ disco-infused track “Magic” is like a Stanley Kubrick film. Or rather, it’s like a Stanley Kubrick film that’s high as a kite, appears to have been inspired by the Game of Thrones opening credits, and is dipped in gold.

And for that, you can thank Double Ninja.

Double Ninja, for those who don’t know, is the wickedly creative French directing duo that made the “Magic” video to life. They were inspired by Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut—“particularly the strange ceremony scene”—and wanted to create something in a similar vein with a little sci-fi thrown (there’s a spaceship). And they wanted to do it in a 3-D world. In gold. This proved to be particularly challenging because gold reflects light, and in three-dimensional space light can bounce all over the place. To figure out how to make all of this work, they called in Hocus Pocus Studio, which specializes in 3-D VFX work.

“The primary challenge was to melt a temple-ship full of gold,” says Remi Devouassoud, the studio’s 3-D supervisor. “In the light of the room size, which was about 10 meters high, with a crowd of characters, we were wondering how we’d be able to make it melt. It was hard to find references, and hard to imagine how we were going to pull it all together. But we successfully found solutions to the problems.”

Find out how Double Ninja and Hocus Pocus made “Magic” in the video premiering above. Then watch the final clip for Mystery Skulls’ track, which features Nile Rogers and Brandy, below.

Google Unveils Chrome Stick That Turns Any Display Into a PC

Caesar Sengupta reaches into his hip pocket and pulls out a PC. About the size of a cigar, it’s a tiny PC. But it’s a PC. If you plug it into an LCD display or a TV, you can run the sort of software you typically run on a personal computer, from word processors and spreadsheets and email to online video.

This is the Asus Chromebit, and according to Sengupta, it will reach the market this summer, priced at less than a hundred dollars. Sengupta is the Google vice president who oversees Chrome OS, the Google operating system that runs the Chromebit. The device is a bit like the Google Chromecast—the digital stick that plugs into your television and streams video from the internet—but it’s bit more powerful. Google pitches it as something that lets you walk up to any LCD display and instantly transform it into viable computer, whether it’s sitting on a desk in a classroom, mounted on the wall in an office conference room, or hanging above the checkout counter in a retail store or fast food joint. “Think about an internet cafe,” Sengupta says. “Think about a school lab.”

GG3A6563_V1 Christie Hemm Klok/WIRED

The device is part of a new wave of machines that use Chrome OS, an operating system built for the internet age. Based on the Google Chrome web browser, the OS is designed for use with internet-based applications such as Google’s Gmail email service and its Google Docs word processor, reducing our dependence on the bulky local software that traditionally runs on PCs, moving tasks onto a cheaper breed of hardware as a result, and, ostensibly, improving security. Over the past several years, Google has pushed its Chromebook laptops and other Chrome OS machines into schools and, to a lesser extent, government agencies and businesses, and now, with several new devices, including a fresh crop if laptops as well as the Chromebit, the company is renewing this push, continuing to challenge Microsoft for control of the rather lucrative business and educational software markets.

Today, Google is unveiling several of these laptops, including two $149 models, from manufacturers Haier and Hisense, that will sell through Amazon.com and Walmart. And this summer, Asus will also roll out an ultra-thin Chromebook that converts into a touchscreen tablet (see above). But the Chromebit is the most intriguing play—if only because it shows how small and how inexpensive PC hardware has become in recent years, how much the line has blurred between PCs, TVs, and mobile devices such as phones and tablets.

This month, Intel will start shipping a similar device called the Intel Compute Stick, which brings Microsoft’s Windows operating system to TVs and other displays. And Dell already offers a device called Wyse Cloud Connect, which works even more like the Chromebit. Certainly, these are niche devices. But they point to a future world where large-screen computers are far more prevalent.

The trend begins with the Chromecast and similar streaming TV devices from the like of Amazon. With tiny, inexpensive sticks, you can transform older televisions into so-called smart TVs, streaming movies and shows from internet services such as YouTube, Netflix, and Amazon Prime Video. But they’re also mini-PCs. Google product manager Josh Woodward says he and his team offer use the Chromecast to get presentations onto conference room displays. This, he explains, is easier than connecting a laptop or using a projector.

GG3A6587_V1 Christie Hemm Klok/WIRED

The Chromebit is really just an extension this idea. Equipped with much the same hardware as a Chromebook laptop, Sengupta says, it’s more powerful than a Chromecast, which just means it’s better at running more applications. Google believes the devices will provide a way of quickly upgrading existing PCs and perhaps even accelerate the rise of computerized displays inside stores and restaurants. Rajen Sheth, another Google VP who has helped lead the company’s push onto business hardware, says that the price of PC hardware and displays has dropped so low, it may now be cheaper to built digital signage than a traditional paper sign. If you print out a 42-inch paper sign at a place like Kinkos, it’ll cost about two hundred dollars, he says, and that same price will eventually get you a 42-inch LCD and a Chromebit.

J.P. Gownder, an analyst with research outfit Forrester, who has closely tracked the rise of Google’s Chrome OS business, rightly points out that there other things to consider. In using these types of PC sticks, he explains, you still need a good way of navigating the software it serves up—a keyboard and mouse or some alternative (the Chromehit offers USB and Bluetooth connections). “A device like this has utility, but the problem is interface,” he says. “The utility is not as cut and dried as it many seem.” And because Chrome machines are really built to run local software, they aren’t suited to all situations.

But Google is working to provide ways of running more local software. This includes versions of online tools such as Google Docs and Gmail that work offline, class business software from the companies like SAP, and apps originally built for phones and tablets that run Google’s Android mobile operating system. It’s another nice metaphor for the ever changing world of computer hardware. As time goes on, the distinctions will break down even further—between phone and tablet, tablet and PC, PC and television.

How To Play Pac-Man In the Taj Mahal, or Anywhere on Google Maps

How To Play Pac-Man In the Taj Mahal, or Anywhere on Google Maps

lombard pac man comp copy Screenshots: WIRED

Angry Nerd’s 100th Episode Spectacular!

Short and Sweet: Why Modern Molecular Biology Needs Oligos

DNA sequencing requires millions of short "barcode" chains to identify distinct samples. (Image: Flickr/Shaury Nash) DNA sequencing requires millions of short "barcode" chains to identify distinct samples. (Image: Flickr/Shaury Nash)

DNA sequencing and synthesis are two sides of the same coin, the “read” and “write” functions of genetic material. The field and its requisite technology took off in the 1990s with the Human Genome Project’s effort to sequence billions of bases and unlock a new era of genetically informed medicine. The resulting science is still a work in progress – it turns out the genetic code is more complicated than anticipated – but the technologies and companies it helped spawn are an impressive legacy.

Integrated DNA Technologies (IDT) got its start during the Human Genome Project, as it produced single nucleotides (the As, Ts, Cs, and Gs that comprise the genetic code) and short oligonucleotide chains (or “oligos”) to help facilitate a massive sequencing effort around the world. Of course, sequencing technology has advanced dramatically in the intervening decades, but “you still need oligos to do the sequencing,” explains Jerry Steele, IDT’s Director of Marketing, “especially in the next gen sequencing space. Sequencing and DNA synthesis go hand in hand.”

The current sequencing method of choice is Illumina, a process that frequently returns millions of bases of DNA sequence by reading distinct stepwise fluorescent signals associated with each base in a massively parallel array. To distinguish genetic material from different samples (a few hundred are often run on the same plate), scientists label each sample’s DNA extract with a distinct barcode. With each barcode comprised of about ten nucleotides, the demand for synthetic DNA chains in the sequencing process is substantial.

Unlike other biotech companies prioritizing longer constructs or gene variants, IDT specializes in relatively short oligos. These chains are used not only in Illumina barcoding, but also as primers – consistent patches of sequence that may border unknown regions and facilitate PCR-based amplification. Both techniques – “next gen” Illumina sequencing and primer-based amplification – are staples of any self-respecting applied or research-based microbiology laboratory, as they allow researchers to identify constituent organisms or confirm a gene’s presence.

With such short sequences, a single nucleotide discrepancy could mean the difference between two Illumina samples from opposite ends of the world, or between a gene native to the Firmicutes or the Proteobacteria. It’s a small margin for error, “so every base better be right,” explains Steele. “As we’ve grown, it’s just a matter of maintaining that consistency on a larger scale.” In the spirit of not fixing something that needs no repairs, IDT shipped an entire fabrication room from its headquarters in Des Moines to Belgium when that facility was being built.

Fundamental as they are to modern biology, oligos are used every day in thousands of laboratories around the world, often in innovative ways that the company itself may not have predicted. “The things that people are doing with DNA are really inspiring,” notes Steele. One of his favorite use cases involves low-impact prenatal tests: rather than a painful and invasive amniosyntesis, “we’ve discovered that now because of sequencing, we can see the baby’s DNA in a blood draw from the mother.” Improved sequencing fidelity and throughput are expanding the resolution of the technique, and Steele soon envisions scientists using next gen sequencing to detect cancer cells from the blood stream as an early diagnosis tool. “Biology is really leaving the lab and coming into the real world,” Steele explains, “and it’s going to improve a lot of lives.”

*This article is part of a special series on DNA synthesis and was previously published at SynBioBeta, the activity hub for the synthetic biology industry.

Amazon Is Going To Let Your Gadgets Order Groceries Automatically

Amazon's Dash Buttons will let you re-order anything with one click of a button. Amazon's Dash Buttons will let you re-order anything with one click of a button. Amazon

The doorbell rings. Which is odd, because I didn’t order anything, and no one’s supposed to come over. I’m snapped out of my confusion by a second ring, and I bound down the two flights of stairs to answer the door. It’s the FedEx guy. He hands me a brown package with black tape advertising the Fire Phone, hikes up his shorts, and walks away. I definitely didn’t order anything, but it does have my name on it… so I open it up.

Four light bulbs, 60 watts.

What the hell? What kind of weird troll is it to send someone four light bulbs? I start to filter through the box to find a receipt with a billing address—and suddenly, the lamp by my desk flickers out.

Apparently I ordered new light bulbs. More specifically, my lamp ordered them.

Apparently I ordered new light bulbs. More specifically, my lamp ordered them. When it discovered the current bulb had just 48 hours of life, it said its goodbyes, moved on, and quickly logged into Amazon and bought me another one.

This is the future according to Amazon. It’s also the whole goal of the Dash platform: keep your stuff in stock. The company is announcing today the the Dash Button, a one-touch way to re-order common things in your home, along with the Dash Replenishment Service, a wildly futuristic program that’s designed to automatically and intelligently keep you from ever running out of things again.

The original Dash was launched in limited capacity almost exactly a year ago—it’s the most unremarkable magic wand ever made. You can scan the barcode on your empty milk carton, or tap a button and say “milk” into the device, and Amazon will automatically ship you a new carton of milk with free two-day delivery.

One thing Amazon learned from the Dash is that most people re-order the same couple of things over and over, and that they have a tendency to forget to do so when they’re not near their Dash. Of course, when you’re not shopping, you’re not useful to Amazon, which is where the Dash Button comes in. It’s a sticky oval about as long as your pinky finger, designed to be placed on a cabinet, a refrigerator, or a bathroom sink wall. Anyone with a Prime membership can get one.

Each button is linked to a brand—Amazons launching in partnership with Gillette, Cottonelle, Gatorade, Kraft, Olay, Tide, and a handful of others, but soon anyone can join the program—and you decide which specific product you want when you first set up the free button. Let’s say you set yours up to order 24 blue Gatorades: Every time you hit that button, it blinks white and then green, and in two days you’ll get 24 blue Gatorades. (Amazon will only fulfill one order at a time, so you won’t be penalized for forgetting you hit the button as easily as you used to forget to order the Gatorade.) And every time something gets ordered, you get a notification on your phone through the Amazon app, so you can cancel it if you’ve decided to kick the blue Gatorade habit once and for all.

The Dash Button is a sticky oval about as long as your pinky finger, designed to be placed on a cabinet, a refrigerator, or a bathroom sink wall. Anyone with a Prime membership can get one.

Handy, right? Everyone has a couple of things they buy frequently, the same thing every time. (Me: coffee, seltzer, laundry detergent.) Amazon’s standard subscription service is sort of a brute-force solution, assuming you never take a break from Gatorade or go on vacation. It’s much smarter to just make it really easy to order more Gatorades when you notice there’s only one left in the fridge—plus, it almost certainly means you’ll drink more Gatorade over time. You win again, Amazon.

Where Dash gets really crazy is in the Dash Replenishment Service (which Amazon calls DRS), which aims to remove you from the process entirely. It’s a simple cloud service that enables anything with an Internet connection to automatically re-order something for you. What if your printer knew when it was almost out of ink, and could buy you more? Brother is one of the first DRS partners, and aims to do just that. Oddball inventor’s laboratory Quirky is building a connected coffeepot and an infant formula machine, both of which can order their own refills and replacement equipment. Your Whirlpool washing machine could know the size of detergent bottle you buy and how much of it you’ve used, deducing when it’s time to order more. You know that Brita filter you haven’t replaced in three years? (I’m nodding my head.) It’ll automatically get another one shipped out as soon as it’s needed.

It’s an amazing, futuristic, surprisingly logical idea. It’s also totally terrifying. I have no idea when my Brita filter needs replacing; it’s nice to have the filter tell me, but what’s to stop Brita from ordering a replacement 25 percent sooner than it needs to? I’ll never know it’s conning me, and it’ll suddenly cost me 25 percent more. If Kraft sends me just a little more mac ‘n’ cheese than I really need, it’s just going to invisibly drive up the cost. And, yeah, there’s something a little creepy about Amazon knowing the exact pace with which I go through toilet paper. You Might Like: Prune Juice, Fiber One cereal.

Amazon’s fairly candid about the fact that it has a lot to think through, and says that’s why it’s opening this up slowly. There will be a beta, and a much wider launch this fall. At that point, though, Amazon VP Peter Larsen says any device with internet access can use DRS with just ten lines of code.

Larsen says this is the future, that it’s not a matter of if but when. And as much as I’m terrified, and worried about Amazon’s capitalistic impulses and the vast amounts of deeply personal data it will collect about me, I keep coming back to that burned-out light bulb. What if the internet of things can fix itself, or at least get you the parts you need? (Amazon’s already working on being able to call the guy to come fix it, too.) That’s a pretty amazing step toward removing frustrating friction from our lives. And look, let’s be honest: I really need to change my Brita filter.

Pig-borne disease most likely jumped into humans when rearing practices changed

Almost every pig carries harmless strains of the S. suis bacterium -- such strains are known as 'commensal' strains. However, a more virulent group of strains of the bacteria also exist, which cause disease in pigs worldwide and are a major driver of antibiotic use for prevention. Increasingly, this group of strains is also implicated in serious human diseases such as meningitis and septicaemia.

In order to understand the genetic basis of disease in S. suis, an international study, led by the Bacterial Respiratory Diseases of Pigs-1 Technology (BRaDP1T) consortium, examined the genomes of 375 clinical samples from pigs and humans from the UK and Vietnam and combined these with data already published on 15 S. suis genome sequences and draft genomes from around the world. They found that the commensal strains and disease-causing strains differed genetically; in particular, the disease-causing strains have between 50 and 100 fewer genes than the commensal strains.

Dr Lucy Weinert from the Department of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Cambridge, first author of the study, says: "It seems that the loss of genes is associated with causing disease. This is something we see quite often in bacteria, but for reasons that are unclear. One possibility is that the missing genes are those that hinder the function of newly-acquired virulence factors in the genomes."

By examining the S. suis's 'tree of life' -- which looks at how the bacteria have evolved over time -- the researchers were able to show that the emergence of a group of strains causing meningitis in pigs and the human form of the disease dates back to the 1920s, when pig production was intensified with the introduction of wide-scale indoor rearing of meat-producing pigs in larger groups, supported by government schemes that favoured larger producers with regular throughput. However, despite having jumped the species barrier from pig to human, the bacteria do not appear to have adapted to infect humans.

"A group of more virulent strains seem to have emerged at around the time the pig industry changed, and it is these strains that mostly cause disease in pigs and humans," says Professor Duncan Maskell, Head of the School of the Biological Sciences at Cambridge.

"Human S. suis disease in the West is extremely rare, but is seen more frequently in south east Asia. It is most likely spread to humans through poor food hygiene practices or other environmental factors. This emphasises the importance of monitoring such practices and putting policies in place to reduce the risk of the spread of infections between species."

Story Source:

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

Why slimy cheats don’t win: 'Cheating' amoebae don't survive better than 'cooperating' amoebae

Darwin's evolutionary theory predicts survival of the fittest. So why do different survival tactics co-exist, if evolution should always favour the winning strategy?

To answer that question scientists at the Universities of Bath and Manchester have been studying a single-celled amoeba, also known as slime mould, which displays certain behaviours that have been labelled as "cheating" or "cooperating."

In a study, published in the journal Current Biology, the team found that cheaters don't necessarily win in terms of overall survival, suggesting that biologists should re-evaluate how they define and measure social cooperation.

Their research has medical implications when it comes to developing therapies that use socially successful bacteria to fight diseases such as lung infections.

Professor Chris Thompson from Manchester's Faculty of Life Sciences explains: "If the cheats always win, then according to Darwin, altruism shouldn't exist. To study this we looked at why the single fittest strategy in the amoeba community doesn't dominate."

The team looked at how amoebae compete against each other during cooperative encounters. These strange microbes generally live in the soil as single cells, eating bacteria, but when food is limited, they clump together to form a 'slug' that moves to a different location before transforming into a fruiting body which eventually releases spores to produce the next generation of amoebae.

Development into a fruiting body requires cooperation, with some of the amoebae forming the stalk part of the fruiting body, effectively sacrificing themselves for the benefit of the ones that become spores. Therefore biologists have labelled the individuals that become the stalk as 'altruists', with the individuals that tend to form lots of spores being identified as 'cheats' because they benefit disproportionately.

However, the scientists from Bath and Manchester found that these assumptions don't necessarily tell the whole story. Those labelled as cheats don't end up having higher success than those that appear to lose since the cheats pay a price for their apparent success by producing larger numbers of lower quality spores. These inferior spores have lower survival rates, so overall the number of spores that survive is similar to those amoebae who 'cooperate'.

Professor Jason Wolf, from the University of Bath's Department of Biology & Biochemistry, explains: "Our study shows that whilst there are definitely winners and losers in social cooperation, you can't measure social success just by counting the number of spores these moulds produce. Those that produce lots of spores often make inferior ones that don't have any overall advantage over their competitors.

"Basically we need to look at the bigger picture when measuring social success, rather than making assumptions based on measuring the wrong things."

Professor Chris Thompson adds: "What our study says is that when we look at systems through just one aspect then that system can appear to be unbalanced and shouldn't work, but in reality we are a collection of many features that together determine our success, and so our variety helps to make us more equal."

He adds: "Our study threw up quite a big surprise because the way we measure fitness in a system is currently misleading. By focussing on the number of offspring (in this case spores) rather than the quality, we're using an incorrect measurement of success.

"What we thought of as socially successful needs to be re-evaluated."

Story Source:

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

Capturing the Bustling Crowds of Tokyo as a Frantic Blur

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Tokyo Disneyland, Electrical Parade, 2014 Matthew Pillsbury. Courtesy Benrubi Gallery, New York City

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Daibutsu—Kotoku-in Temple, Kamakura, 2014 Matthew Pillsbury. Courtesy Benrubi Gallery, New York City

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Cup Noodles Museum, Yokohama, 2014 Matthew Pillsbury. Courtesy Benrubi Gallery, New York City

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The First Hanami Ueno Park, Tokyo, 2014 Matthew Pillsbury. Courtesy Benrubi Gallery, New York City

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Robot Restaurant, Tokyo, 2014 Matthew Pillsbury. Courtesy Benrubi Gallery, New York City

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Hanami #11, Shinjuku Gyoen, 2014 Matthew Pillsbury. Courtesy Benrubi Gallery, New York City


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Tokyo Train Station, 2014 Matthew Pillsbury. Courtesy Benrubi Gallery, New York City

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Hanami #14, Inokashira Park, 2014 Matthew Pillsbury. Courtesy Benrubi Gallery, New York City

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Tokyo Stock Exchange, 2014 Matthew Pillsbury. Courtesy Benrubi Gallery, New York City

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Hanami #10, Shinjuku Gyoen, 2014 Matthew Pillsbury. Courtesy Benrubi Gallery, New York City

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Akihabara, Tokyo, 2014 Matthew Pillsbury. Courtesy Benrubi Gallery, New York City

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Hanami #12, Shinjuku Gyoen, 2014 Matthew Pillsbury. Courtesy Benrubi Gallery, New York City


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Hanami #18, Shinjuku Gyoen, 2014 Matthew Pillsbury. Courtesy Benrubi Gallery, New York City

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Robot Bar, Tokyo, 2014 Matthew Pillsbury. Courtesy Benrubi Gallery, New York City

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Hanami #15—Chidorifugachi—2014 Matthew Pillsbury. Courtesy Benrubi Gallery, New York City