A Gut Feeling: How the bacteria inside us influence our weights, our immune systems, and our brains.

There are more microbes in your gut than there are cells in your body. Which, for all you germaphobes out there, is probably more than a little unnerving. That’s over 100 trillion bacteria, all primarily within your colon.[1] If we were to consider every microbial being on your body right now- your roughly 37 trillion human cells would be outnumbered 10 to 1.[2]That’s lovely (read: terrifying) and all, but why does it matter?

I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Justin Sonnenburg, researcher at Stanford University (The Sonnenburg Lab) and coauthor of “The Good Gut,” who sums it up like this: “You have these microbes associated with your body that are absolutely fundamental to your health, and if these microbes aren’t taken care of, your health is going to take a hit because of it.”[1]

What is the Gut Microbiota?

The gut microbiota has a huge impact on human health- and digestive health is only the most obvious of the many ways it affects the body. It influences weight gain and obesity, immune function, and the brain, just to name a few. So that brings up a question: what is it about these gut microbes that allows them to affect so much of human physiology?

In the womb, humans are sterile- they have absolutely no microbial life anywhere on them. As soon as, and even while they’re born, however, babies’ bodies are colonized by a huge diversity of microbial life. A baby born naturally is exposed to his mother’s vaginal microbiota, bacteria already tested and used by the mother’s body. Babies born by Cesarean-section develop gut microbiota that are more similar to the skin microbiota of doctors, friends, and family, and are more likely to have an unhealthy microbiota even years later.[3] [Click here for the report on this study]

The Gut Microbiota and Weight Gain

In a UK study of over 11,000 children, researchers found that babies who had received antibiotics before 6 months of age, on average weighed more than children of the same age who had not received antibiotics. Even more striking, this difference in weight was still present up to three years of age, more than two years after the antibiotic treatment that separated the two groups.[Here] This effect, where antibiotic use is followed by weight gain, has been shown in laboratory mice as well; even mice that ate and exercised exactly the same amount gained weight differently depending on antibiotic use.[Here] This is because the composition of the microbiota, the population of bacteria inside you, changes the way the body stores calories as fat. The microbiota of an obese person is radically different from that of a lean person. Studies have even shown that transplanting the microbiota  of an obese mouse into a lean mouse is enough to cause weight gain without changing the mouse’s lifestyle in any way.[3]

The microbiota is a complex system- while there are diseases in which one specific bacteria causes one specific disease, the effect of the microbiota on its host is primarily an ecological effect. It is how the thousands of bacterial species in the gut interact with surrounding human cells and with the environment that determines disease or health. This discovery has led to an entirely new way of thinking about bacteria as a complex community inside us and all around us rather than solely considering “good”  or “bad” bacteria.[1]

The Microbiota and the Immune System

Lately, it has become obvious that the microbiota intimately affects the immune system as well, arguably acting as a secondary immune system. This field of study is still very new, and scientists are discovering things we’d never imagined were possible. Scientists are only now realizing that the traditional militaristic image of the immune system as a personal army that wards off invaders doesn’t nearly convey the entirety of what it does. Some even think that the immune system should be renamed to better reflect the complexity of its role in the body. Most of the immune cells in your body are located in your digestive tract, in constant contact and communication with the bacteria there.[3] The microbiota is hugely important to the functioning of your immune system- not only to prevent food-borne illness, but even basic immune function, like warding off a flu virus, will be impaired if the microbiota is unhealthy. Furthermore, immune cells in the colon don’t always stay there- they can travel through the bloodstream to other locations in the body. This means that an immune cell can directly  interact with the gut microbiota one day, and be in the lung the next- using information it learned from bacteria in the colon to more effectively do its job elsewhere in the body.[1]

In the gut, the mucosal immune system needs to maintain the delicate balance between its pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory sides, preventing bacteria from breaching the intestinal wall without causing the wall to become excessively inflamed. This balance is dependent on the microbiota; overly aggressive bacteria can lead to an overaggressive immune system and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). In 2011, researchers at California Institute of Technology found that changing the composition of the gut microbiota in mice with multiple sclerosis dramatically changed the speed at which the disease progressed, showing very vividly how the gut microbiota could affect autoimmunity, and a disease that seemed wholly unrelated to digestion.[Here] Autoimmune diseases, cancer, IBD, and repressed immunity have all become more prevalent in the increasingly westernized world. “It appears that the Western lifestyle has…disrupted the seesaw, jeopardizing the delicate balancing act that keeps both the pro- and anti-inflammatory  branches of our immune system peacefully coexisting with our microbes.”[3]

The Microbiota Today

Increased C section births, use of antibiotics, and even the sterility of the environment most newborns in the western world experience have contributed to a less robust microbiota, and therefore a less healthy immune system. Laboratory mice that have no gut microbiota have fewer resident immune cells in their gut, making them more susceptible to infection if exposed to germs present in the outside world. Because much of immune system development occurs very early in life, even if these mice are later inoculated with a gut microbiota, their immune systems never adjust to function optimally. Furthermore, allergies are more prevalent in the western world than in less developed countries. This paired with the fact that children who grow up with dogs, have multiple siblings, are raised on farms or are otherwise more exposed to bacteria are less likely to develop allergies or asthma make a strong case for the hygiene hypothesis, which credits the reduced exposure to infectious agents and even nonpathogenic bacteria with the increased prevalence of allergies.[3] [Read the papers here and here]

Sanitation has tremendously decreased deaths from infectious diseases and saved lives, so the answer isn’t to abandon advances in cleanliness and sterilization procedures entirely, but to step away from the overuse that is the practice today. Proportionally, very few microbes that humans come in contact with every day cause disease. Exposure to a diverse range of bacteria, even those that are not pathogenic, strengthen the immune system, causing it to respond in small ways by identifying each new bacteria as threatening or nonthreatening, and therefore keeping the immune system “on its toes.” The rise of hand sanitizer, antibacterial soap, antibacterial-infused kitchen utensils, even hand washing in excess, and urbanization that separates us from interacting with soil and nature in general have weakened our immune systems, while overuse of antibiotics have created strains of dangerous, untreatable superbugs- bacteria who don’t respond to treatment.[3]

 The Microbiota and the Brain

The effect of the gut microbiota doesn’t stop there. New research has shown that the health of our microbiota is inarguably and intimately tied to the health of our brains as well. Stress turns on the fight or flight response, activating our sympathetic nervous system, causing a host of physiological effects including faster heart rate, higher blood pressure, and slowed digestion. This decrease of the gut transit time of food consumed radically changes the environment that the microbiota is exposed to in the colon, immediately changing which bacteria flourish, and which do not. The enteric nervous system is the branch of the nervous system that regulates our digestion. It is so large and complex, it can function on its own, without interference from the brain. However, it is connected to the central nervous system by hundreds of millions of  neurons, and is in engaged in constant, two-way conversation with our brains.[3]

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter responsible in large part for feelings of happiness, which is also thought to affect mood, social behavior, appetite, digestion, sleep, memory and sexual desire. It is manufactured in the brain and the intestines, but 80-90% of it is found in the gastrointestinal tract, with our friends, the microbiota.[4] The vast majority of drugs prescribed in the US to treat disorders like anxiety and depression do so by affecting serotonin levels. At UCLA in 2013, researchers did a study in which participants were split into three groups: one group ate a yogurt with four known bacterial species, one group ate a placebo yogurt that was bacteria free, and a third consumed nothing outside of their normal habits. The results were incredible: in just one month, women in the first group showed differences in brain activity when compared to women in the other two groups. The changes were seen in areas across the brain, including the prefrontal, frontal and temporal cortexes and the periaqueductal gray area, which are involved in processing sensory input and emotion, and are important in anxiety disorders, pain perception and even irritable bowel syndrome.[3] [Here]

Though discoveries made in trials with animals can’t be directly applied to humans, several recent studies done with lab mice hold enormous promise for advances to come in the field. Researchers have found that mice without a microbiota take more risks, and have difficulty in creating long term memories.[Here and here]  When two groups of mice have their microbiotas swapped, their behavior changes. In this experiment, anxious and brave mice, as measured by the length of time it took them to climb down a precarious platform, had their microbiotas swapped. Both types of mice showed radical behavior change;. their times differed by more than a minute compared to their original. The brave group took much longer, and the anxious group much less time to complete the same task as before, showing that the microbiota can affect our thoughts and behaviors.[Here]

Many researchers also believe that the microbiota may be the key to Autism Spectrum Disorders. Many people who have ASD also experience gastrointestinal problems, and when researchers delved deeper, they found that ASD patients often had very homogenous microbiotas. In a study done at Caltech, researchers introduced a bacterial species named Bacteroides fragilis, which helps repair intestinal ‘leakiness’ that is often characteristic to the colons of people with ASD to mice that displayed ASD-like symptoms. When they did so, the mice displayed decreased severity of symptoms: decreased anxiety and repetitive behaviors, and improved communication.[3] [Here]

More and more studies are being done on psychobiotics, which aim to ameliorate psychiatric symptoms by normalizing the amounts of various chemicals and neurotransmitters in the body and increasing the health and diversity of the gut microbiota.  While all of this research is still very new, it shows great promise. It is very possible that we will be better able to treat and prevent these types of diseases very near in the future by harnessing the power of  the microbiota.[3]

The Microbiota and You

“Unlike the human genome, which is largely fixed before birth, the microbiome can be altered throughout life by way of strategic choices that are within our control.”[3] One of the biggest ways to affect the microbiota is by changing our diets. Most of the microbiota in our gut live at the end of it, in the large intestine. When we eat something like cake, which is primarily sugar, fat, and simple carbs, most of the nutrients are absorbed in the stomach and the small intestine, so by the time the food reaches the microbiota, there isn’t much left. People whose diets are low in dietary fiber and high in simple carbs and sugars will have a starving microbiota. The malnourished microbiota then begins eating the mucosal lining of the intestines, a tremendously important barrier for preventing infection. Foods like carrots or broccoli on the other hand, are full of dietary fiber, which makes it all the way down to the colon, and feeds the microbiota, keeping it healthy. Changing your diet will immediately impact the microbiota- as soon as increased amounts of fiber reach the colon, the bacteria will change their behavior, switching from consuming the mucosal lining we need, to helping us break down and make use of dietary fiber and producing many important byproducts. However, a sudden change to a healthier diet won’t increase the diversity of the microbiota, which is often left decimated after microbiota famine caused by a low fiber diet.[1] In order to increase the number of species present, its often a good idea to consume foods that contain bacteria, like yogurts and other fermented foods, in addition to increasing daily intake of dietary fiber and consuming more plant material.[1,3]

At the end of my interview with Dr. Sonnenburg, I asked him whether his research had changed his lifestyle and habits in any way. He was fervent that it had.

“Completely yes- I’ve totally changed my diet, my lifestyle, and how I raise my kids. In fact, it was the motivation to write this book [The Good Gut] with my wife- she’s a researcher here as well. We felt like all  the microbiota researchers were all doing the same things in terms of modifying their diet and lifestyle, and nobody else was. It’s very clear that people in this field are distilling out the same take home messages. Those messages are: eat way more dietary fiber and plant material, less red meat. Limit antibiotics to when they’re absolutely essential. Most investigators eat fermented food now, yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut. And then for raising kids: try to avoid C sections if you can, and try to breastfeed your baby. These are the simple rules that we’ve implemented and that other people in the field have implemented as well.”[1]

Interested? Check Out These Links!

  1. The Good Gut: Taking Control of Your Weight, Your Mood, and Your Long-Term Health
  2. The Sonnenburg Lab
  3. Youtube/podcast with both Dr. Sonnenburgs
  4. The Human Microbiome Project
  5. Gut Microbiota World Watch

 

References:

  1. Sonnenburg, Justin. “The Gut Microbiota.” Personal interview. 09 Nov. 2015.
  2. Chutkan, R. (2015, February 12). Why The Microbiome Is The Future Of Medicine. Lecture presented at Live Dirty, Eat Clean! Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pDBI9txA-W0
  3. Sonnenburg, J., & Sonnenburg, E. (2015). The Good Gut: Taking Control of Your Weight, Your Mood, and Your Long-Term Health. New York, New York: Penguin Press.
  4. McIntosh, J. Reviewed by Webberley, H. (n.d.). Retrieved December 9, 2015, from http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/232248.php

 

Image Credit: Earle, Kristen. Sonnenburg Lab [Spatial Organization of the Gut Microbiota]. Retrieved January 4, 2015 from http://sonnenburglab.stanford.edu

Intraterrestrial Life

Under the Sea, Below Our Feet, and Maybe on Mars

Perhaps you were a Disney fan, and the song “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid still pops into your head occasionally. Perhaps you were into grittier science fiction material, like Journey to the Center of the Earth or Artemis Fowl. Or perhaps none of this media was particularly appealing to you, and you’re just someone who likes to speculate about the world and its inhabitants. Whatever the inspiration, it’s likely that at some point you’ve wondered about life beneath the surface of Earth—what sort of life forms might exist in the deep seas, in the rock below us, maybe even deeper, in the planet’s core? You of course know that scientists, much to our disappointment, have yet to discover any mermaids, monsters, or fairies in these regions (or in any other parts of the planet). But they do know about another kind of life below us, under the ground we walk on and below the ocean floors: intraterrestrial life.

Intraterrestrial life is defined as any form of life existing at least “1 meter…below the continental surface or seafloor”—an area called the “deep biosphere.”[1] These life forms are microbial, or microscopic; examples of microbial life include viruses, fungi, and prokaryotes like bacteria. There are actually more microbes in the deep biosphere than anywhere else in the world; it’s estimated that up to 95% of the global population of prokaryotes lives as intraterrestrial life within the subsurface of Earth.

Intraterrestrial life differs between various habitats. Thus, when studying the deep biosphere, scientists must look at a great number of diverse environments that host microbial life. These environments range from sub-sea floor sediment and basement rock (the rock below the sea floor) to continental sedimentary rock (the rock below the continental surface) to caves. Sometimes these studies are fairly easy to perform; for example, researchers may simply walk through caves in order to gather microbial samples and make observations. At other times, these projects involve a great deal of funding and technology; generally, the study of sub-sea floor habitats falls into this category. In 2010, the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program launched a large-scale project in order to observe sub-sea floor intraterrestrial life, sending a deep sea drilling vessel on three trips to various ocean ridges to collect samples and set up six undersea observatories.[2] This represents just one of many costly and time-intensive endeavors to understand intraterrestrial life.

So why all this effort? Why do we care? What impact can tiny organisms, some living many miles below us, have on our macroscopic surface world? As it turns out, intraterrestrial organisms, despite their small size, are of huge significance to our lives and, yes, to life beyond Earth.

The presence of microbial life in oil wells may be both beneficial and harmful to oil extraction processes. On the positive side, a technique called Microbial Enhanced Oil Recovery (MEOR) manipulates intraterrestrial life forms present within oil reservoirs in order to improve oil recovery. Nutrients and water are injected into these oil sources, which stimulate bacterial growth within the reservoir. For reasons that are not entirely clear, these bacteria help release oil that is trapped in porous media, allowing for increased oil recovery.[3] However, the microbial life within oil wells may also cause the wells to corrode. Sulfate-reducing bacteria are widely recognized as the primary culprit of the microbial corrosion of oil pipelines because of their ability to corrode iron.[4] So in the case of the oil industry, intraterrestrial life may affect our oil yields to both favorable and unfavorable ends.

Methanogens, nonbacterial intraterrestrial microbes, may increase our energy yield through processes other than MEOR. Methanogens produce methane gas hydrates, compounds in which large amounts of methane are stored. The sedimentary methane hydrate reservoir that exists below the ocean floor is estimated to contain anywhere from two to ten times the amount of natural gas in currently known reserves, which the methanogens produced. This represents a huge source of energy that may be tapped into in the future, a very important resource in the face of the global energy crisis. Intraterrestrial life may also be key in combating another crisis that we face: the issue of water security. Certain intraterrestrials—specifically autochthonous and allochthonous microorganisms—have the ability to help restore contaminated groundwater sources.[5]

Intraterrestrial life may not only give us insight about the beginning of life on Earth, but also on other planets. Very recently, in the summer of 2015, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution discovered rocks below the seafloor that held ancient microbial life forms.[6] This discovery supports a long-debated hypothesis that “interactions between mantle rocks and seawater can create potential for life.” It may be that life on Earth began this way, underground, billions of years ago. If so, then the idea of life on other planets becomes not only possible, but likely. It could be that life on Mars will be created or has already been created by this very process. However, Dr. Gordon Brown from the Stanford University School of Earth, Energy, and Environmental Sciences encourages us to be cautious in our speculation. He says that “while it is good to explore these possibilities, nothing is certain”.[7] Additionally, if microbial life is found on Mars in the future, it could be a result of contamination by the many rovers that have been sent to Mars for research purposes. This microbial life would have originated on Earth, not on Mars. Still, the possibilities are exciting, and further research may lead us closer to the truth.

With all of these applications, it is perplexing that intraterrestrial life is not often addressed in secondary education, or in general conversation about Earth’s unexplored habitats. More often do we speculate about life on other planets, and briefly do we learn that the vast, unknown ecosystems within the deep seas are vast and unknown. High school may offer brief trifecta tutorials on the layers of the earth—can you memorize crust, mantle, core?—and the main classes of rock—how about sedimentary, metamorphic, igneous?—but little to no information about the life present within these layers or rocks. In general, why is geology such an underemphasized field in secondary education? Perhaps we will see a greater focus on this field in the future, as it presents such vast opportunities for our world and beyond.

 

References

  1. Edwards, Katrina J., Becker, Keir, & Colwell, Frederick (2012). The Deep, Dark Energy Biosphere: Intraterrestrial Life on Earth. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences, 40. Retrieved from http://www.annualreviews.org.ezproxy.stanford.edu/doi/full/10.1146/annurev-earth-042711-105500
  2. Fox, Stuart (2010). The undersea hunt for intraterrestrial life. Popular Science. Retrieved from http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2010-03/deep-sea-drilling-rig-probe-ocean-floor-undiscovered-lifeforms
  3. Microbial enhanced oil recovery (MEOR). Retrieved from http://www.statoil.com/en/TechnologyInnovation/OptimizingReservoirRecovery/RecoveryMethods/WaterAssistedMethodsImprovedOilRecoveryIOR/Pages/MicrobialEnhancedOilRecovery(MEOR).aspx
  4. Different Types of Corrosion: Microbiologically Influenced Corrosion (MIC). Retrieved from http://www.corrosionclinic.com/types_of_corrosion/microbiologically_influenced_biological_microbial_corrosion.htm
  5. Pedersen, K. (2000). Exploration of deep intraterrestrial microbial life: current perspectives. FEMS Microbiology Letters, 185. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/store/10.1111/j.1574-6968.2000.tb09033.x/asset/j.1574-6968.2000.tb09033.x.pdf;jsessionid=80CA6B8002A5BCBFFB230EED21892021.f01t02?v=1&t=ih40yqz0&s=de54c31ba892d415258df5f5879d9b253c40fc94
  6. Parker, Will (2015). “Intraterrestrial” life found in rocks below the seafloor. Retrieved from http://www.scienceagogo.com/news/20150731185125.shtml
  7. Brown, G., Ph.D. (2015, November 3). Microbial interactions at environmental interfaces [Personal interview].

 

Rose-bots

Fusing Plants and Electronics

Perhaps a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but a rose equipped with an electronic circuit may provide much more than a sweet smell. At least, that’s what Magnus Berggren, a professor at Linköping University in Sweden, believes. In an unprecedented move, Berggren’s team of researchers, working at the university’s Laboratory of Organic Electronics, has created electronic circuits inside living roses.

Unlike previous attempts at incorporating plants and electronics, this project involved using the roses’ own vascular systems in order to install the circuits. The research team “aimed to assemble polymer-based ‘wires’ on the inside of a plant’s xylem, the tubelike channel that transports water up a plant’s stem to the leaves.”[1] A polymer is a long, chain-like molecule that consists of thousands of atoms bonded together in a repeating pattern. Berggren’s group dissolved conductive polymers in water and submerged the roots or cut stem of a rose into the solution. The researchers hoped that the plant would then pull the solution into its xylem and link the polymers together, forming wires of sorts. For three years, the scientists experimented with more than a dozen polymers, but none was successful; the polymers were not drawn up into the xylem, did not assemble into wires, or sometimes poisoned the roses.[2]

Finally, they tried the polymer PEDOT-S:H, a success. On November 20, 2015, the team reported that the roses had easily pulled the polymer into their xylems, forming wires as long as 10 cm. When the researchers applied a charge to the wires, the wires conducted electricity without harming the roses. They were also able to create transistors in the roses, forming a true electronic circuit. In a flashier move, the team added electronic components to the roses’ leaves, “essentially creating an array of pixels” that made it seem like the leaves were changing colors when different voltages were applied.

The applications of this technology are not yet certain, but the researchers have high hopes. According to Berggren, they could insert sensors into plants that would monitor the plants’ physiological activity; for example, they could detect when plants are about to flower. They could even use the fusion of plants and electronics to delay or catalyze flowering. Both of these practices would be extremely beneficial to agriculturalists. Another potential application of this technology—one that impacts everybody—is to harness the photosynthesis of electronically rigged plants to generate electricity in an environmentally clean way. Even if none of these applications is realized, there remains one simple fact that Zhenan Bao, an organic electronics expert at Stanford, sums up perfectly: rigging plants with electronic circuits is “really cool.”

 

References

  1. Service, Robert F. (2015). In electrifying advance, researchers create circuit within living plants. American Association for the Advancement of Science. Retrieved from http://news.sciencemag.org/technology/2015/11/electrifying-advance-researchers-create-circuit-within-living-plants
  2. Ghose, Tia (2015). Cyborg roses wired with self-growing circuits. Live Science. Retrieved from http://www.livescience.com/52872-electronic-plants-created.html

Linköping University. (2015, November 20). Electronic plants created. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/11/151120182611.htm

Thompson, Helen (2015). Roses rigged with electrical circuitry. ScienceNews. Retrieved from https://www.sciencenews.org/blog/science-ticker/roses-rigged-electrical-circuitry

Bourzac, Katherine (2015). Bionic roses implanted with electronic circuits. Scientific American. Retrieved from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/bionic-roses-implanted-with-electronic-circuits/

Szondy, David (2015). Scientists create electronic circuits in living roses. Gizmag. Retrieved from http://www.gizmag.com/linkoping-university-electronics-plants/40557/

 

Silicon Valley’s Newest Venture: Curing Death?!

Google, Paypal founder, and Stanford University invest millions to end the effects of aging

“Forever young, I want to be forever young.”

When most people listen to JayZ’s hit 2010 single, they reminisce of better times. They think of their childhoods, a period free of disease and stress. A selective few, however, take JayZ’s words to heart—literally.

Can we live forever young?

The concept of anti-aging, or a Fountain of Youth, has been with us for millennia and passed off in recent decades as science fiction. Nowadays, however, more and more biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies have figured out that a huge profit could exist in the in the study of human longevity. Based on recent market studies, the anti-aging market is expected be worth $345 billion annually by 2018.[1]

The race to the anti-aging solution is not at a turtle’s pace. Peter Thiel, the founder of Paypal, recently donated $3.5 million to the anti-aging nonprofit Methuselah to find drugs that cure types of age-related damage like loss of cells and excessive cell division. Through his own nonprofit, Breakout Labs, he has funded dozens of other scientists working toward the goal of prolonging life. Larry Ellison, cofounder of Oracle, donated $430 million dollars to anti-aging research, which he attributes to his “sheer inability to accept the concept of mortality.” Peter Diamandis, the founder of the X-Prize and International Space University, is on board too, offering a $10 million prize for technology that extends the healthy human life span as long as possible.[1]

Perhaps the loftiest of all these ventures, however, is that of Alphabet — in 2013, Google announced the opening of Calico labs, with the mission of curing not just diseases, but aging itself. In September 2014, Calico partnered with the $112 billion biotech firm AbbVie Inc., with the goal of expanding human life spans by as much as 100 years.[4] Anti-aging is an all-hand-on-deck movement, and Google has set out to prove that we can “prevent” death.

The methods used to combat aging have shown signs of progress. In January of 2015, Stanford researchers at the Baxter Laboratory for Stem Cell Biology were able to reverse the biological age of 60-year-old human skin and muscle cells by 25 years.3 Using modified mRNA, these researchers developed a procedure to quickly and efficiently increase the length of human telomeres, the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes that are linked to aging and disease. Back in 2012, the University of Nottingham modeled telomere studies after the species with the longest lifespan—the Planarian worm, which can perpetually heal itself and divide.

With profit motives, however, some companies are taking more drastic measures: Liz Parrish, CEO of BioViva, recently became the first human subject of anti-aging trials. Against the suggestions of many clinical researchers, who believe it’s still to early to test on humans, Parrish used gene therapy on herself to alter DNA and combat muscle loss and age related diseases.[2] Dangerous? Probably. The solution to aging is worth billions, however, and risks like these could pay dividends in the future.

Aging is no longer a fact of life. With diseases like Alzheimer’s and various cancers turning into epidemics, the necessity for an alternative solution is key, and targeting aging may be the strategy we need. While we may face factors like overpopulation and resource depletion in an ageless world, those can possibly be solved with a more efficient use of our world or even by space colonization; we’ve found water on Mars, and NASA plans to send humans to Mars—permanently. So what’s stopping us from living forever? We may soon find out.

Welcome to the future, where Jay-Z is king, and we can all live forever young.

References

1          Anderson, K. (2015, June 25). Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin Plan to Cure Aging with Biotech Venture. Retrieved November 25, 2015, from http://moneymorning.com/2015/06/25/googles-larry-page-and-sergey-brin-plan-to-cure-aging-with-biotech-venture/

2          Anti-aging ‘patient zero’ – Biotech CEO tests DNA-altering gene therapy on herself. (2015, October 15). Retrieved November 25, 2015, from http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/anti-ageing-patient-zero-biotech-ceo-tests-dna-altering-gene-therapy-herself-1524103

3          Conger, K. (n.d.). Telomere extension turns back aging clock in cultured human cells, study finds. Retrieved November 25, 2015, from https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2015/01/telomere-extension-turns-back-aging-clock-in-cultured-cells.html

4          Ferenstein, G. (2013, September 19). WTF Is Calico, And Why Does Google Think Its Mysterious New Company Can Defy Aging? Retrieved November 25, 2015, from http://techcrunch.com/2013/09/19/wtf-is-calico-and-why-does-google-think-its-mysterious-new-company-can-defy-aging/

[Image Attribute – Richard Fowler Show]

MARTY McDRIVE: Stanford’s Self Drifting DeLorean

An electric engine whirrs to life as tires screech across the asphalt and the smell of burnt rubber permeates the air. A man sits inside this beast, this mechanical masterpiece, this accomplishment of automotive innovation with no hands on the wheel and feet off the pedals. Its name: MARTY, Stanford’s self drifting DeLorean.

15773-carmarty_news

Clearly inspired by the time traveling car of Back to the Future, MARTY (Multiple Actuator Research Test bed for Yaw control) is a technological marvel [1]. Released just in “time” for the film’s 30th anniversary, this invention by Stanford’s Gerdes’ Dynamic Design Lab not only pays respect to the cult classic, but also acts as a groundbreaking achievement in the field of autonomous automotive research [2]. In addition to being incredibly cool, MARTY provides an important step in advancing electronic stability control technology. ESC is “a computerized technology that improves a vehicle’s stability by detecting and reducing loss of traction [that]… automatically applies the brakes to help the vehicle where the driver intends to go [3].” The algorithms, hardware, and software developed due to this project will play a major role in creating automobiles that rely on artificial intelligence.

Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently partnered with Toyota to do just this! Over the next five years, Toyota will donate $50 million to joint research centers at both universities to create driverless cars and a human-centric AI program [4]. This research will hopefully lead to safer and more advanced hands-free automative technology potentially having important impacts on the commercial market as well as a variety of other fields.

Projects such as MARTY and the experimentation being conducted at Stanford and MIT’s respective centers for automotive research are at the forefront of technological advancement. While it may take years or even decades for the work of these scientists, engineers, programmers, and mechanics to come to fruition, it will no doubt have a massive impact on society as we know it. In the words of Back to the Future’s Doc Brown, “your future is whatever you make it, so make it a good one.”

References:

  1. Carey, Bjorn. “Introducing MARTY, Stanford’s Self-driving, Electric, Drifting DeLorean.” Stanford University. Stanford University, Oct.-Nov. 2015. Web. 01 Dec. 2015.
  2. Davies, Alex. “Stanford’s Self-Driving DeLorean Drifts, Does Killer Donuts.” Wired.com. Conde Nast Digital, Oct.-Nov. 2015. Web. 01 Dec. 2015.
  3. “Electronic Stability Control .” Safercar.gov. NHTSA.gov, n.d. Web. 01 Dec. 2015. <http://www.safercar.gov/Vehicle+Shoppers/Rollover/Electronic+Stability+Control&gt;.
  4. Lienert, Paul. “Toyota Partners with Stanford, MIT on Self-driving Car Research.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 04 Sept. 2015. Web. 01 Dec. 20

Image from: http://news.stanford.edu/news/2015/october/marty-autonomous-delorean-102015

Water World: The Potential Implications of Sea Level Rise

One hundred thousand people, eight hundred square kilometers, and thirty three reef atolls comprise one country that will be underwater by the end of the century: Kiribati. A small island nation in the middle of the Pacific, Kiribati is extremely susceptible to climate induced sea level rise because of its low elevation. Its President, Anote Tong, has even stated to the New York Times, “according to the projections, within this century, the water will be higher than the highest point in our lands [1].” Higher sea levels have already made an impact. Many of the nation’s sea walls have been destroyed or eroded by the rising tides, allowing “water [to] rush in, rip apart a village, and drive the residents to higher ground [1].” Large portions of the country’s GDP are already being allocated to repairing areas from coastal flooding, but as the problem worsens their efforts will be negligible. With no other options, the people of Kiribati face a predicament: stay  and hope that the global climate situation will change, or leave the land, their homes, their lifestyle, and their culture in search of a new beginning somewhere else.

5D6CDDBD-CF8D-4442-99C59F9656FFEB1E

Kiribati is just one of many countries to be affected by sea level rise by the end of the 21st century. As many as six hundred and fifty million people in countries such as China, Vietnam, the Maldives, the Netherlands, the United States and more will be at risk if waters rise as expected. In a recent study by NASA, it was discovered that the Earth is “locked in” to at least three feet of sea level rise by the end of the century, potentially more if mankind does not reduce its carbon emission rate soon [2]. The emission of greenhouse gases into our atmosphere traps heat, causing polar ice caps to melt, and adds a massive influx of water into the system. Furthermore, as temperatures increase, dark ocean waters will heat up, become less dense, and expand. This process, know as Thermal Expansion, is predicted to contribute to roughly half of the expected sea level rise, according to Dr. Chip Fletcher of the University of Hawaii.

While just three feet might seem insignificant, on the grand scale of things it will have a major impact on human civilization, particularly the United States. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, thirty-nine percent of the nation’s population lives in Coastal Shoreline Counties, some of the most vulnerable areas to sea level rise. Additionally, it was found by the U.S. Geological Survey that half of American coastlines are “at high or very high risk of impacts due to sea level rise [3].” Even Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders has stated, “If sea levels were to rise even three feet, cities like Miami, New Orleans, California, and others could find themselves underwater.

But what are the costs associated with this global phenomenon? As sea level waters rise, delicate ecosystems and habitats will be destroyed due to salt water intrusion, displacing and killing plant and animal species reliant on fresh water. Additionally, low lying infrastructure will flood, making roads, highways, and entire cities potentially inaccessible which could negatively impact millions of citizens in urban centers all along the coast. The White House recently tweeted that, “A sea level rise of just 1 foot could cost America $200 billion,” and the National Climate Assessment predicts, “more than $1 trillion of property and structures in the United States are at risk of inundation from sea level rise of two feet above current sea level [4].”

California especially will feel extensive consequences due to higher sea levels. The California Delta, an expansive estuary where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers meet, includes some of the state’s most fertile farmland such as the Central Valley. Producing “1/4 of the Nation’s food,” in addition to being the source of two thirds of California’s groundwater and twenty percent of the Nation’s groundwater, the valley provides a pivotal role in the state and national infrastructure [5]. This area, however, is known for its structural depression and vulnerability to sea level rise. Over the years the land has subsided so that it is now below sea level, resulting its intricate system of levies that are vulnerable to overtopping and failure. Salt water inundation and destruction of farmland in this area alone would result in an annual loss of over $17 billion.

So what are we to do? Short-term solutions such as creating levies or building sea walls can mitigate the effects of sea level rise, but will do nothing to solve the overall problem. Our only resolution to keep this dilemma from worsening is to control the emission of greenhouse gases through the 21st Conference of the Parties in Paris or COP 21. The international climate change talks begin on November 30th and will hopefully result in binding political action (unlike previous conferences in Kyoto and Copenhagen). Although the outlook may seem grim, we still have a chance. Student groups such as Fossil Free Stanford and others in colleges across the country are rallying together to convince their respective administrations to divest fossil fuels for greener alternatives. While this might just be a small step, it is a necessary one to change public opinion, create tangible action, and prevent the tides from rising so that we may preserve our community, society, and way of life.

References:

  1. Morais, Betsy. “President Tong and His Disappearing Islands – The New Yorker.” The New Yorker. N.p., 08 June 2014. Web. 01 Dec. 2015. <http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/president-tong-and-his-disappearing-islands&gt;.
  2. Miller, Brandon. “Expert: We’re ‘locked In’ to 3-foot Sea Level Rise – CNN.com.” CNN. Cable News Network, n.d. Web. 01 Dec. 2015. <http://www.cnn.com/2015/08/27/us/nasa-rising-sea-levels/&gt;.
  3. Zhang, Keqi, Bruce C. Douglas, and Stephen P. Leatherman. “East Coast Storm Surges Provide Unique Climate Record.” Eos Trans. AGU Eos, Transactions American Geophysical Union 78.37 (1997): 389. Web.
  4. “FACT SHEET: Taking Action to Protect Communities and Reduce the Cost of Future Flood Disasters.” The White House. The White House, n.d. Web. 01 Dec. 2015. <https://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/ceq/Press_Releases/January_30_2015&gt;.
  5. “California’s Central Valley.” California’s Central Valley. US Department of the Interior, n.d. Web. 01 Dec. 2015. <http://ca.water.usgs.gov/projects/central-valley/about-central-valley.html&gt;.

Images from:

http://news.stanford.edu/news/2015/september/sea-level-rise-090315.html

http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/president-tong-and-his-disappearing-islands

Advances in the Computational Sciences

Help the military test new weaponry. Search for new particles of matter. Find better approximations for Schrodinger’s Equation.

With the rapid advances in the computational sciences, a relatively new field that uses advanced computing abilities and data analysis to solve complicated problems, many previously unimaginable computational applications are becoming possible.

Researchers for and officials in the military need to computationally test new weaponry; analyze images from satellites, surveillance cameras, and radars; store and sort internal information; etc. As military data constantly grows, the computational calculations and challenges – such as CPU time, memory, and disk space – grow with it. Therefore, distributed computing, a technique that divides a larger computational problem into smaller sub-problems that processors can solve more efficiently, is now used for military applications.[1]

At the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva, Switzerland, particles collide approximately 600 million times every second. Each of these collisions are recorded and sent to the CERN Data Center (DC) to be analyzed. Due to the large amount of data that is collected every day, DC does not have enough computational power to deal with the large amount of data gathered by the LHC, so it implements grid computing. The Worldwide LHC Computing Grid (WLCG) is a distributed computing infrastructure lets DC share the information from the LHC with other computer centers around the world. This allows over 8000 physicists access to the data whenever they want.[2]

cern-servers

Figure 1. CERN Data Center.[3]

Computational chemistry uses computer simulations based on mathematical equations to describe molecules and predict chemical reactions. The information gathered assists researchers in wet labs in predicting the results of their experiments and better prepares them for making observations. The basis for many of the most accurate calculations is the Schrodinger Equation, a partial differential equation that can be solved only approximately. Even then, calculations involving the equation require a lot of computational power. Hence, many other methods, such as Density Functional Theory, are currently being developed, adjusted, and tested against the Schrodinger Equation to find a cheaper yet still accurate approach to be used in computational chemistry research.[4]

 

References

  1. Stojkovic, V. (n.d.). Distributed Processing of Big Data for Military Applications. Retrieved from http://ahpcrc.stanford.edu/research/project/distributed-processing-big-data-military-applications
  1. Computing. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://home.cern/about/computing
  1. (n.d.). [Image of the CERN Data Center]. CERN Computing. Retrieved from http://home.cern/about/computing
  1. Research Overview. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.chem.unt.edu/~akwilson/research/overview.htm

[Featured Image: Computational Science]

Born to Run

Humans are the most efficient distance runners in the animal kingdom.[1] In a short distance race, humans will almost always lose to other mammals. Usain Bolt broke world records when he ran the 100 meter dash at a speed of approximately 28 mph.[2] A cheetah, by comparison, can run between 68 and 75 mph. Our bipedal structure puts us at a distinct disadvantage for short distances; four legs are far more effective for sprinting.[3] However, our ability to sweat instead of pant in order to cool down means we can run distances that would kill most other animals.[4]

Our aptitude at running long distances most likely evolved during our hunter-gatherer days on the grasslands of Africa. Before the invention of arrows or spears, humans practiced persistence hunting in order to gather their food. These early nomadic hunters relied on outrunning their prey by continuing to pursue them after the initial sprint, causing the animal to overheat and die.[5]

As a result of adapting for persistence hunting, humans are incredibly efficient runners. Marathon runners often reach their peak times in their late 30’s or 40’s.[6] More than half of the one million people who finish marathons each year are over the age of 40.[7] This trend is entirely unique to running. In the NFL, the average age of retirement is 28; a gymnast’s average age of retirement is 19.[8] At ages where most other athletes are done with their career, runners are just getting started.

Also surprisingly, men and women have relatively comparable marathon times. For a distance of one mile, the record for men is approximately three minutes and forty-three seconds while for women it is about four minutes and thirteen seconds (a 24% difference). When we look at marathon records, the men’s is 2 hours and 3 min and women’s is 2 hours and 15 minutes (a 10% difference). The comparable performance level between men and women in endurance running is unseen in other sports.

It is hypothesized that age and gender affect humans’ running time less because during our hunter-gatherer days, the entire tribe of humans lived a nomadic life. In other words, once the tribe started chasing prey, everyone had to run: young, old, women, and men. If you couldn’t keep up, you couldn’t eat.

Long distance running is well known for being hard on athletes’ bodies: shin splints, plantar fasciitis, and knee problems are well documented among elite runners. However, these injuries occur because we have divorced ourselves from the style of running we were initially evolved for. Overly technical shoes that favor heel striking and running on hard cement or asphalt, as most runners in urban communities do, amplify the impact of hitting the ground. We must reevaluate the modern conception of running and implement more anatomically advantageous methods such as forefoot strikes and running on natural terrain.

 

Sources

  1. Powell, A. (2007, April 19). Humans hot, sweaty, natural-born runners. Retrieved December 1, 2015, from http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2007/04/humans-hot-sweaty-natural-born-runners/
  2. Zaldivar, G. (2012, August 2). Breaking Down Usain Bolt’s Amazing Speed. Retrieved December 2, 2015, from http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1283999-usain-bolt-mph-breaking-down-amazing-speed-from-olympic-sprinter
  3. McDougall, C. (2011, February 1). Transcript of “Are we born to run?” Retrieved December 2, 2015, from https://www.ted.com/talks/christopher_mcdougall_are_we_born_to_run/transcript?language=en
  4. ibid
  5. ibid
  6. McMahan, I. (2015, April 22). Running Into Old Age. Retrieved December 2, 2015, from http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/04/running-into-old-age/390219/
  7. ibid
  8. Biasiotto, J. (n.d.). 15 Surprising Facts About World Class Athletes. Retrieved December 2, 2015, from http://strengthplanet.com/other/15-surprising-facts-about-world-class-athletes.htm

 

Cover Image:

Photographer: Ryan Litwiller link to original image. (source, Flickr) photo was unaltered from original form. link to license.

Cough Up Some Cash: Drug Pricing and Development

This past August, Turing Pharmaceuticals purchased the rights to an HIV drug that has existed for more than 60 years, and raised its price from $13.50 a pill to $750.00 a pill.[1]  The drug primarily treats toxoplasmosis, a disease that affects AIDS patients, pregnant women and other immunocompromised individuals.[1] Now, with annual treatment costing up to hundreds of thousands of dollars- many patients and hospitals are left without access to this lifesaving drug.[1] The company’s CEO, Martin Shkreli, announced intentions to reverse this price hike only a few days later, largely due to public outrage at the 5000% price increase. Unfortunately, Turing Pharmaceuticals is only one of several pharma companies engaging in the practice of purchasing already existing drugs and raising prices without improving or modifying them in any way.[2]

Gretchen Stroud is an attorney in the intellectual property department of Gilead Sciences, the pharmaceutical company primarily responsible for the Hepatitis C cure and HIV drugs that incorporate multiple active ingredients into one pill.[3] In her words,

“It really is true that some drug companies have done things that aren’t so great. And I think pricing issues have been in the news a lot…Gilead was in the news with the Hepatitis C cure, which… it invented and spent a lot of money creating, while other companies have raised the prices of generic products. In fact, the Hepatitis C cure was priced only slightly more than all the other Hepatitis treatments that had been on the market previously.” [3]

Hep C Cure PicWhittaker, M. (Photographer). (2015, July 16). Gilead Limits Enrollment in its Hep C Patient Program to Pressure Insurers [digital image]. Retrieved from http://blogs.wsj.com/pharmalot/2015/07/16/gilead-limits-enrollment-in-its-hep-c-patient-program-to-pressure-insurers/  

Its worth noting that this Hepatitis C cure, Harvoni, costs around $1000- not per month, or per bottle, but per pill, totaling to $84,000 for a standard 12-week treatment.[4,5] This shocking upfront cost evoked a wave of indignant articles that largely ignored the fact that many patients taking the drug wouldn’t be paying the list price. Gilead published information on pricing and accessibility to Harvoni in response to media outrage stating, “Gilead provides the Support PathTM program. Through this program, the majority of commercially insured patients will be able to access Harvoni and Sovaldi for just a $5 co-pay per month.” [6]

It is important to recognize that high prices for recently developed new drugs and price hikes that are not accompanied by changes or improvements to the drugs in question are two entirely different issues. In the past few years, several large pharma companies have engaged in the latter; purchasing existing drugs from smaller companies, rebranding them, and astronomically increasing their list price.[1] Valeant Pharmaceuticals International, one of just many additional examples, acquired the drug Cuprimine, and quadrupled its price overnight.[7] Some patients, who have been taking this drug for decades, suddenly find themselves unable to afford this price hike, even with insurance.[7]  In the last five years, prices for several drugs have sky-rocketed after being acquired by Valeant. The image below shows these drastic price increases.

Valeant Price Hikes.pngThe New York Times,. (2015). List prices for some of Valeant’s prescription drugs [digital image]. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/05/business/valeants-drug-price-strategy-enriches-it-but-infuriates-patients-and-lawmakers.html?_r=1

The truth is, all drug companies sell their drugs for much higher than the direct cost of manufacturing them, though this phenomenon is not always motivated by greed. To understand why, let’s take a look at the drug development process.

PhRMA Press.(2011, February 1). The Drug Discovery Process . Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DhxD6sVQEYc

Drug development is expensive and risky, since many compounds end up being unsafe for human consumption even after going through several stages of costly trials.[8] Furthermore, the FDA grants companies data exclusivity, essentially the right to be the only vendor of the newly developed drug, for only five years after the drug goes to market. Forced to recoup the costs of development in such a short period, companies may artificially inflate prices for the first five years in order to break even and make a profit.[3]

While the cost of drug development is often kept confidential, a source of dissension to those fighting for lower drug prices, most estimates range from 1.3 to 2.6 billion dollars for a single drug, which is by no means, a small sum. Because we rely on drug companies to advance pharmacological science and invent new medicines, it is important that drug companies are able to sell their drugs at prices that will encourage and enable continued research and development. At the same time, companies that increase drug prices without investing in this research usher in an era of simple repackaging of already existing drugs, and stagnation in the field of drug development and world health.

 

 

Interested? Further Reading (and watching!)

 

References:

  1. Pollack, A. (2015, September 20). Drug Goes From $13.50 a Tablet to $750, Overnight. The New York Times. Retrieved November 1, 2015, from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/21/business/a-huge-overnight-increase-in-a-drugs-price-raises-protests.html
  2. Mitchell, A., & Helsel, P. (2015, September 23). Drug CEO Will Lower Price of Daraprim After Hike Sparked Outrage. Retrieved November 25, 2015, from http://www.nbcnews.com/business/business-news/drug-ceo-will-lower-price-daraprim-after-outrage-n431926
  3. Stroud, Gretchen. “Gilead Sciences Drug Development and FDA Interaction.” Telephone interview. 21 Oct. 2015.
  4. Walker, J. (2015, April 8). Gilead’s $1,000 Pill Is Hard for States to Swallow. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved November 1, 2015, from http://www.wsj.com/articles/gileads-1-000-hep-c-pill-is-hard-for-states-to-swallow-1428525426
  5. Hiltzik, M. (2015, June 19). High cost of hepatitis drug reflects a broken pricing system. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved November 1, 2015, from http://www.latimes.com/business/hiltzik/la-fi-hiltzik-20150621-column.html
  6. Gilead Sciences Policy Position: Innovating and Expanding Access to Hepatitis C Treatments. (2014, October 1). Retrieved November 25, 2015, from http://www.gilead.com/~/media/files/pdfs/policy-perspectives/expandingaccesstohcvtreatments10214.pdf?la=en
  7. Pollack, A., & Tavernise, S. (2015, October 4). Valeant’s Drug Price Strategy Enriches It, but Infuriates Patients and Lawmakers. The New York Times. Retrieved November 1, 2015, from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/05/business/valeants-drug-price-strategy-enriches-it-but-infuriates-patients-and-lawmakers.html?_r=1
  8. Coury, D. (n.d.). Your Dollars@Work: Accelerating Development of New Autism Medicines. Retrieved November 1, 2015, from https://www.autismspeaks.org/blog/2014/07/03/your-dollarswork-accelerating-development-new-autism-medicines
  9. PhRMA Press.(2011, February 1). The Drug Discovery Process. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DhxD6sVQEYc
  10. How the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development Pegged the Cost of a New Drug at $2.6 Billion. (2014, November 18). Retrieved November 1, 2015, from http://csdd.tufts.edu/files/uploads/cost_study_backgrounder.pdf

 

As Herbie Imagined It

The world as director Robert Stevenson encapsulated it in Disney’s 1968 hit film, The Love Bug, may not be so far away.

In the movie, aspiring race car driver Jim Douglas’ whole life changes when he finds himself in possession of Herbie – the famed, self-driving automobile. During one particularly climactic scene, an emotional Herbie is rushing full-speed ahead towards the edge of the Golden Gate Bridge. Just as the Volkswagen is about to drive off into the bay, Douglas jumps in front. Herbie comes to a scorching halt and our courageous protagonist lands unconscious on the car’s hood.

A standby police officer, awestruck, walks up to Douglas and examines the unconscious, yet unharmed body. “Boy was he lucky. This little car saved his life,” he says. He was right.

While cars with mood swings larger than teenagers will probably never exist, self-driving cars are a reality already beginning to be implemented. What’s more is that an open-ware, smart grid system for managing an entire network of these cars may be available within the next decade.

Vehicle-to-Vehicle communication, or V2V in traffic speak, is a novel technology that allows cars to interact with each other, broadcasting their location, speed, brake status, and other essential vehicle data within a several hundred meter radius. Messages – some 600 a minute – would be sent between cars traveling through similar routes [1]. Drivers would be alerted of potentially dangerous situations. If something unexpectedly appeared in the way, the car would sense it and come to screeching stop.

In the U.S. alone, over 30,000 car crashes end fatally every year. 93% of those are reported as having been influenced by human factors such as behavior, judgment, vision, or reaction speed [2]. It is sad that vehicle collision still remains as one of the leading causes of death.

Roads equipped with V2V cars could change that. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that over half a million crashes and perhaps, close to 270,000 hospitalization [3] cases could be avoided through the technology, making roads safer than ever. By hard coding instructions that preempt any sort of collision, human error can be significantly if not totally reduced.

We are at the verge of an automobile revolution. V2V may still be in its infancy (although, General Motors has pledged to introduce the technology in its 2017-model Cadillac [1]), but researchers are already thinking about what’s coming next.

Google, Tesla, Mercedes, and other car manufacturers around the globe are slowly unraveling the functionality of self-driving automobiles. If this is coupled with V2V technology, say goodbye to ever needing to learn how to drive. Just hop in the car, enter the location in the GPS on your phone, lay back, and enjoy your music playlist as you cruise to your destination.

Now imagine if each of these cars could connect to a control grid. This grid would be responsible for maintaining the flow of traffic by relaying commands to cars, indicating parameters such as recommended speed, recommended lanes, traffic lights, stalls, and various other alerts. No matter how smart an individual automobile becomes with its sensors, software, and Artificial Intelligence, without a unified ecosystem that enables networking among these cars, roads will still not be completely safe.

On the flip side, there are significant concerns attached to the pursuit of a smart grid for automobiles. One such worry revolves around potential security vulnerability. Will security technology stay ahead of such rapid advancement in vehicle technology? That alone could decide the outcome of how soon your Love Bug might take you on a spin.

 

References

  1. Knight, W. (2015, February 18). Vehicle-to-Vehicle Communications Will Save Lives on the Road | MIT Technology Review. Retrieved November 27, 2015, from http://www.technologyreview.com/featuredstory/534981/car-to-car-communication/
  1. Retrieved November 27, 2015, from http://www.nhtsa.gov/NCSA
  1. NHTSA V2V Communications. (n.d.). Retrieved November 27, 2015, from http://www.safercar.gov/v2v/index.html
  1. Wollschlaeger, D. What’s Next? V2V (Vehicle-to-Vehicle) Communication With Connected Cars. Retrieved November 27, 2015, from http://www.wired.com/insights/2014/09/connected-cars/

Feature image courtesy of Wikipedia.