Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘health’

31 MAY, 2011

E. chromi: Designer Bacteria for Color-Coded Disease Detection

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What the future of personalized medicine has to do with the cross-pollination of design and engineering.

Last year, I had the pleasure of profiling the extraordinary artist Daisy Ginsberg for Wired UK. (We also shared a crazy New York adventure that involved a Russian homeless man with Cheetos in his beard and anterograde amnesia.) I called Ginsberg a “postmodern Michelangelo” — and she very much is one, working at the fascinating intersection of design and research as she explores the bleeding edge of art and science, particularly the field of synthetic biology.

Photo by Leon Csernohlavek

E.chromi is one of Ginsburg’s most notable projects — an ambitious collaboration in which she and designer James King partnered with seven Cambridge University biology undergraduates to develop a designer strain of bacteria capable of detecting and notifying you of the concentration of pollutants in water by secreting colors visible to the naked eye. The team designed standardized sequences of DNA called BioBricks, each containing genes from existing organisms capable of producing color, and inserted them into E. coli bacteria.

The project won MIT’s International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition in 2009 and the film about it recently won the best documentary award at Bio:Fiction, the world’s first synthetic biology film festival.

Synthetic biology is promising to change the world, from sustainable fuel to tumor-killing bacteria. But personally I’m skeptical about how we should use it — just because we can do it doesn’t mean we should.” ~ Daisy Ginsberg

What makes E.chromi most fascinating are its diverse and tremendously valuable real-life applications, from testing groundwater for arsenic to producing natural, chemical-free colorings and dyes for food and textiles to personalized disease monitoring via custom probiotic yogurt.

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06 MAY, 2011

A World Without Moms

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What going to school without underwear has to do with ruling the world.

A few months ago, our friends from Acumen Fund launched the Search for the Obvious initiative — a quest to find everyday objects and ideas that dramatically improve quality of life. In its latest iteration, SFTO challenged people to imagine a world without moms in an effort to raise awareness about the 7 million women who are injured and 350,000 women who die from complications due to childbirth every year — yet of the world’s 1,000 childbirth deaths per day, 800 are preventable by providing simple, basic maternal health care.

The challenge received dozens of submissions from all over the world across a variety of categories, from video to tweet to guerrilla. This poignant entry by the Jubilee Project, reminiscent of the beautiful Fifty People One Question, won the video category with its candid, deeply human journey into the richness and multiplicity of mothers’ impact on who we are and how we go through the world.

This video was inspired by our desire to help moms around the world because of the love and care we received from our own moms. We wanted to capture a genuine and raw spectrum of voices that spoke to just how much moms mean to all of us.”

See the other category winners and find out about ways to help save moms around the world on the official challenge page. For more on Acumen Fund’s work for maternity hospitals, don’t miss this excellent ABC News interview with founder Jacqueline Novogratz, whose TED talk on the life of immersion remains an all-time favorite.

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19 APRIL, 2011

2011 Nonfiction Pulitzer: A Biography of Cancer

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Yesterday, the 2011 Pulitzer Prize winners were announced and, as always, we were most fascinated by the highly contested nonfiction category, which is as much a measure of good writing as it is a reflection of the era’s cultural concerns. This year’s winner was The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Columbia professor of medicine Siddhartha Mukherjee — a thorough, eloquent and eye-opening medical and sociocultural history of the ubiquitous disease, from its origin to the first recorded cases to modern medicine’s ongoing struggle to find effective treatment.

When I started writing this book, I thought of cancer as a disease. But as I wrote more and more about it, it seemed as though it was not just a disease but something that envelops our lives so fully that it was writing about someone. It was like writing about an alter personality, an illness that had a psyche, a behavior, a pattern of existing.” ~ Siddhartha Mukherjee

The book begins with the stories of pathologist Sidney Farber and philanthropist Mary Lasker, who is credited with launching the war on cancer by urging scientists and the government to race for a cure of the little-understood killer.

The second half of the narrative shifts from the cultural to the scientific context of humanity’s battle with the disease, focusing on the incremental yet gamechanging discoveries of a various brilliant scientists over the past half-century as the scientific community raced to understand how cell become cancerous in order to better address prevention and treatment.

So fascinating is the book that one dedicated fan used its narrative to extract a visual timeline of cancer from 1950 to the present:

With its blend of cultural anthropology, rigorous research and genuine empathy, The Emperor of All Maladies is, as the Pulitzer unequivocally implies, a pinnacle of fine nonfiction that oscillates between the profound cultural distress of a presently incurable disease and the relentless scientific exhilaration embedded in the very possibility of unraveling this great and all-consuming mystery.

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