The Citizens Who Solve the World’s Problems

It’s always nice when news items that support each other and indicate a certain future appear in the same week, especially when each of them is exciting on its own. Last week we’ve seen this happening with three different news items:

  1. A scientific finding that a single bacteria type grows 60 percent better in space than on Earth. The germs used in the experiment were collected by the public;
  2. A new Kickstarter project for the creation of a DNA laboratory for everyone;
  3. A new project proposed on a crowdfunding platform, requesting public support for developing the means for rapid detection of Zika virus without the need for a laboratory in Brazil.

Let’s go over each to see how they all come together.

 

Space Microbes

Between the years 2012 and 2014, citizens throughout the United States collected bacteria samples from their environment using cotton swabs, and mailed them to the University of California Davis. Out of the large number of samples that arrived at the lab, 48 strains of germs were isolated and selected to be sent to space, on board the International Space Station (ISS). Most of the bacterial strains behaved similarly on Earth and in space. One strain, however, surpassed all expectations and proliferated rapidly, growing 60% better in space.

Does this mean that the bacteria, going by the name of Bacillus safensis, is better adapted for life in space? I would stay wary of such assertions. We don’t know yet whether the improved growth was a result of the micro-gravity conditions in the space stations, or of some other unquantified factor. It is entirely possible that the levels of humidity, oxygen concentrations, or the quality of the medium were somehow altered or changed on the space station. The result, in short, could easily be a fluke rather than an indicator that some bacteria can grow better in micro-gravity. We’ll have to wait for further evidence before reaching a final conclusion on this issue.

The most exciting thing for me here is that the bacteria in question was collected by the public, in a demonstration of the power of citizen science. People from all over America took part in the project, and as a result of their combined effort, the scientists ended up with a large number of strains, some of which they probably would not have thought to use in the first place. This is one of the main strengths of citizen science: providing many samples of research material for the scientists to analyze and experiment on.

space bell.jpg
Study author Darlene Cavalier swabs the crack of the Liberty Bell to collect bacterial samples. Credit: CC by 4.0

DNA Labs for Everyone

Have you always wanted to check your own DNA? To find out whether you have a certain variant of a gene, or identify the animals whose meat appears in your hamburger? Well, now you can do that easily by ordering the Bento Lab: “A DNA laboratory for everyone”.

The laptop-sized lab includes a centrifuge for the extraction of DNA from biological samples, a PCR thermocycler to target specific DNA sequences, and an illuminated gel unit to visualize the results and ascertain whether or not the sample contains the DNA sequence you were looking after. All that, for the price of less than one thousand dollars. This is ridiculously cheap, particularly when you understand that similar lab equipment easily have cost tens of thousands of dollars just twenty years ago.

The Bento Lab - Citizen Science for DNA analysis
The Bento Lab

The Kickstarter project has already gained support from 395 backers, pledging nearly $150,000 to the cause, and surpassing the goal by 250% in just ten days. That’s an amazing progress for a project that’s really only suitable for hard-core makers and bio-hackers.

Why is the Bento Lab so exciting? Because it gives power to the people. The current model is very limited, but the next versions of mobile labs will contain better equipment and provide better capabilities to the bio-hackers who purchase them. You don’t have to be a futurist to say that – already there are other projects attempting to bring CRISPR technology for highly-efficient gene editing to the masses.

This, then, is a great example for the ways citizen science is going to keep on evolving: people won’t just collect bacterial samples in the streets and send them to distinguished scientists. Instead, private people – joes shmoes like you and me – will be able to experiment on these bacteria in their homes and garages.

Should you be scared? Obviously, yeah. The power to re-engineer biology is nothing to scoff at, and we will need to think up ways to regulate public bio-engineering. However, the public could also use this kind of power to contribute to scientific projects around the world, to conduct DNA sequencing of one’s own genetics, and eventually to create biological therapeutics in one’s own house.

Which brings us to the last news item I wanted to write about in this post: citizens developing means for rapid detection of Zika virus.

 

Entrepreneurs against Viruses

The Zika virus has begun spreading rapidly in Brazil, with devastating consequences. The virus can spread from pregnant women to their fetuses, and has been linked to a serious birth defect of the brain called microcephaly in babies. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the virus likely will continue to spread to new areas.

Despite the fact that the World Health Organization declared Zika virus a public health emergency merely two months ago, citizen scientists are already working diligently to develop new ways to detect the virus. A UK-IL-BR team has sprung up, with young biotech entrepreneurs leading and doing research to create a better system for rapid detection of the virus in human beings and mosquitos. The group is now requesting the public to chip in and back the project, and has already gathered nearly $6,000.

This initiative is a result of the movement that brings the capabilities to do science to everyone. When every citizen armed with an undergraduate degree in biology can do science in his or her home, we shouldn’t be surprised when new methods for the detection of viruses crop up in distant places around the world. We’re basically decentralizing the scientific community – and as a result can have many more people working on strange and wonderful ideas, some of which will actually bear fruit to the benefit of all.

 

Conclusions

As scientific devices and appliances become cheaper and make their way to the hands of individuals around the world, citizen science becomes more popular and provides ever greater impact. Today we see the uprising of the citizen scientists – those that are not supported by universities or research centers, but instead start conducting experiments in their homes.

In a decade from now, we will see at least one therapeutic being manufactured by citizen scientists in an easy and cheap manner that will undermine the expensive prices demanded by pharma companies for their drugs. Heck, even kids would be able to deliver that kind of science in garage labs. Less than a decade later, we will witness citizen scientists actually conducting medical research on their own, by running analysis over medical records of hundreds – maybe millions – of people to uncover how new or existing therapeutics can be used to treat certain medical conditions. Many of these research projects will not be supported by the government or big pharma with the intent to make money, but will instead be supported by the public itself on crowdfunding sites.

Of course, for all that to happen we need to support citizen scientists today. So go ahead – contribute to the campaign against Zika, or purchase a Bento Lab for your kitchen, or find a citizen science projects or games for kids you can join in SciStarter. We all can take part in improving science, together.

 

Visit other posts in my blog about crowdfunding projects, such as Robit: A new contender in the field of house robots; or read my analysis Why crowdfunding scams are good for society.

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Sputnik Day: Could We have a New Space Race?

Exactly fifty-eight years ago, the Soviet Union rocked history with the successful launch of Sputnik 1 – the first time for humans to contribute a satellite to Planet Earth. While Sputnik was a pretty small satellite – only 58 cm in diameter – its launch triggered the Space Race, in which U.S.A and the Soviet Union tried to impress the world with their innovations, rockets and astronauts. The Space Race came to exciting culmination with the Moon landing on 1969, with a gradual decline ever since.

Today, we are swamped with 3,000 satellites orbiting the Earth. Without these satellites, our lives would not have been as easy as they are now. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, satellites help us forecast the weather, enable us to navigate with GPS, send television signals straight to households, and many other things. In short, they’re incredibly useful, and it’s clear that we’re now reaping the investment made during the Space Race – even though at that time, the two superpowers mainly fought over the prestige of being the first, the best and the brightest.

So today, the day in which Sputnik 1 was launched, it’s interesting to me to think about a hypothetical scenario in which another technological breakthrough occurs: a real game-changer which forces all the world’s citizens to rethink their old beliefs, and drags all the superpowers into another race. What would that scenario look like?

First, it’s clear that the world is a fair bit more cynical today than it was during the Cold War. There are no longer two market and national philosophies at war today. Capitalism has clearly won the game, at least for now. While radical religion could be presented as a rival to democracy, the only place right now where the truly radical, unapologetic expressions of religion can be found are in the Islamic State. And while ISIS has proliferated in an unbelievably rapid pace, it lacks the capacity to make new scientific and technological discoveries. And let’s say gently that they’re not really impressing the world with their contributions to the humanities or the arts.

Since the world is largely uninterested in prestige anymore, we need a technological breakthrough whose impact and consequences would be clear from the outset. What breakthrough might that be?

Free Resources from Space

There are many answers to that question, like discovering a source of free energy (possibly cold nuclear fusion), or finding a way to play with the law of gravity and change the weight of buildings and even human beings (imagine that!). However, scientific breakthroughs are often made on the shoulders of giants – i.e. they rely on plenty of previous research and past successes – and the current scientific literature does not provide us any reassurance that anyone has even gotten close to figuring out these two challenges.

So let’s opt for a more likely scenario, and imagine that sometime in the next ten years, a private firm will succeed in mining an asteroid in deep space, and will bring back to orbit sacks full of gold and platinum. We could definitely imagine this scenario becoming reality, since there are currently at least two companies (Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries) competing between themselves to be the first to mine asteroids and bring back their riches to Earth.

Were such a venture to succeed, it would have far-reaching consequences for the future of the Earth. At the moment, the developed world relies on many precious materials that can be found mostly in developing nations. According to data from Fast Company, these materials include fluorspar (CaF2, used for high-performance optics) from Mexico, cobalt and tantalum from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, niobium (Nb, used in microcapacitors and pacemakers) from Brazil, and an estimated $1 trillion in mineral deposits in Afghanistan. These countries would essentially lose a significant part of their income, if precious materials were to be imported from space.

This chart by Visual Capitalist shows how long the resources on Earth will suffice. Please note the image here is about half of the full chart, which can be found in Venture Capitalist's site.
This chart by Visual Capitalist shows how long the resources on Earth will suffice.
Please note the image here is about half of the full chart, which can be found in Venture Capitalist’s site.

The developed and powerful nations would face other difficulties. Russia, the U.S.A., China, India, Japan and the European Union have all the means necessary to start space mining themselves, and they will strive to do so as soon as possible, so that each of them can be the first to get to the ‘easiest to pick’ asteroids – the ones whose trajectories bring them closest to Earth, and contain the largest concentrations of precious metals. At the same time, they will go into overdrive developing anti-spacecraft weapons, so that they can protect their investment in space. After all, nobody wants to drag an asteroid all the way to Earth, just to have a competing nation take control over it.

A space mining race, then, is one likely result of this scenario. An alternative, though, might be found in collaboration. Deep space has plenty of asteroids waiting for mankind to mine them, and 13,000 of those asteroids have orbits that bring them close to Earth. A single platinum-rich asteroid contains 174 times the yearly world output of platinum. Perhaps pooling together humanity’s resources, then, and coordinating every nation’s efforts, would be the best way to move forward and to share the abundant wealth to come.

Conclusion

I have no idea which way the world will turn to, but one thing is clear: this scenario forces everyone to rethink their positions regarding space, and to take action of one sort or the other. No nation would be able to afford itself to stay out of the new space race, or at least out of the debate for reallocation of resources that would come for it. There shall be much gnashing of teeth and a lot of anxiety on behalf of world leaders, but in the long term this development would prove to be one of the greatest boons even bestowed on humanity, leading to an era of abundance in precious metals and materials.

Interestingly, we are already starting to consider these scenarios seriously. In a recent workshop conducted by Dr. Deganit Paikowsky and yours truly, the full impact of a similar scenario was analyzed by students who role-played the different nations of the Earth. The results of the workshop will be publicized soon, but until they do, I would love receiving feedback from you: how do you think the nations would react to this scenario? Will we see a new space race, or a joint thrust forward? And which do you think will be the most efficient and successful way for humanity as a whole?

The answers to these questions could truly shape our future.