IEEE Spectrum: The Brave New World of Bionic Babies

Conceptual Photograph: The Voorhes

Re-creating everything that happens inside the womb belongs firmly in the realm of science fiction. There’s still too much that scientists don’t know about the early stages of development, when fetal cells grow into organs, limbs, and tissues. But George Mychaliska thinks that creating an artificial version of the placenta, or at least replicating its most important function, is in reach. As a fetal and pediatric surgeon at the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, in Ann Arbor, he often sees premature babies who have left the womb too soon. Although modern medicine can save many of them, the chances of survival for extremely small preemies—those younger than 28 weeks, barely in their third trimester—remain slim. Of the survivors, many are left with long-term health problems. Lungs simply aren’t designed to breathe until the baby is close to full term, which is currently defined as 39 weeks, and even the gentlest techniques to assist breathing can damage the tissue.

“We’re in a catch-22 as baby doctors,” Mychaliska says. “If we don’t do anything, they die. If we want to save them… they may survive, but they likely will have varying degrees of lung disease from the treatment itself.”

For more than a decade, Mychaliska has been working on a solution: an artificial placenta to keep extremely young preemies alive until they can breathe on their own. Already, he’s proven that it can sustain premature lambs for several weeks. Building a breathing apparatus for a premature infant is not trivial, as the baby’s tiny size and fragile physiology pose both medical and engineering challenges. Mychaliska’s team has been adapting existing technology to work reliably with the skinniest of blood vessels and developing materials compatible with the unique biology of fetuses. Now, after several recent breakthroughs, Mychaliska thinks his team’s artificial placenta is only five years away from human trials.

Read my April 2021 cover story for IEEE Spectrum

BBC Future: The human right that benefits nature

The history behind one of Costa Rica’s most important environmental commitments reads something like a legal fairytale. It started nearly 30 years ago, with a young boy who wanted to stop the pollution in his neighborhood and ended with a constitutional reform. The impacts of the boy’s efforts are still causing ripples to the present day.

It began in 1992, by a stream weaving through a small town near the capital, San José. Without a proper waste management system, locals would throw their garbage into the stream, causing waste to pile up at its banks. Frustrated about the situation, then 10-year-old Carlos Roberto Mejía Chacón, with help from his family, filed an appeal with Costa Rica’s constitutional chamber against the local municipality. Allowing the river to be used as a garbage dump, he argued, violated the human right to life, which requires adequate living conditions and protected, clean waterways.

The chamber sided with Chacón a year later and ordered the municipality to clear up the garbage and start managing residents’ waste properly. But it also came to a much deeper recognition. A clean and healthy environment is a very basis of human life, as are balanced ecosystems, biodiversity, and other elements of nature on which people depend, the judges reasoned. Just like food, work, housing and education, an all-round healthy environment should be considered a human right.

This remarkable conclusion not only set a new legal standard for courts around the country, but also spurred the decision to carve the human right to a healthy environment into Costa Rica’s legal DNA during a constitutional reform in 1994, recalls lawyer Patricia Madrigal Cordero, who was involved in the legislative process at the time. Since then, the constitutional right has helped guide many of Costa Rica’s widely praised – although far from perfect – environmental policies and reverberated through the country’s landscape and culture. “I think Costa Rica would be different if we didn’t establish that relationship between human rights and the environment,” Cordero says. 

The human right to a healthy environment – encompassing clean and balanced ecosystems, rich biodiversity and a stable climate – recognises that nature is a keystone of a dignified human existence, in line with a wealth of scientific evidence linking human welfare and the natural worldPeople depend on thriving ecosystems that clean water and airyield seafood and pollinators, and soak up greenhouse gases. Recognising this link legally can greatly strengthen human rights.

But equally important, Cordero notes, is that the right provides a powerful basis to protect nature itself. In a worsening global environmental crisis, some legal scholars have argued that the right to a healthy environment acts as a crucial legal pathway to protecting the natural world, both by encouraging governments to pass stronger environmental laws and allowing courts to hold violators accountable. Especially when installed into constitutions, such rights are taken seriously by many judicial systems and become hard to undo, creating an enduring force counteracting the interests against protecting nature.  

But although there is clear scientific consensus on the benefits of nature to people, the evolution of nature as a human right has been remarkably patchy around the world. Today, many Latin American countries are forging ahead while Europe and North America lag somewhat behind. Since the right’s first mention in the Stockholm Declaration in 1972 – a result of the first major environmental conference – some 110 countries have constitutionally recognised it. While its impact varies across the globe, it has created a powerful bulwark against a rising tide of environmental destruction in many countries, such as Costa Rica, Colombia and South Africa, as more nations look set to follow suit soon.

Of course, recognising the right “is not a magic wand we can use to solve all of our challenges”, says environmental lawyer David Boyd, who is appointed as a special rapporteur on human rights and the environment at the United Nations. “It’s a catalyst for better actions.”

Read the whole feature at BBC Future

The Counter: The pandemic could change U.S. fisheries forever. Will it be for better or for worse?

Image: Tom Santaguida

Not unlike its effect on humans, the pandemic’s impact on the seafood industry has been variable, erratic, often devastating. The first symptoms appeared long before Covid-19 gained a stronghold on U.S. shores, as China went into its first lockdown and a critical export market disappeared overnight—seafood processors and dealers in Maine saw international demand for lobsters temporarily vanish. Then as social distancing rules kicked in here, another major organ of the U.S. supply chain—restaurants, where most seafood purchases are made—fell limp. Then Covid outbreaks at processing plants caused the system to further buckle, leaving many fishermen with nowhere to sell their catch. Prices for many species plummeted. Some fishers gave up for the season, leaving boats tied up at the docks. 

“It wasn’t worth it,” recalled Brian Pearce, a commercial fisherman based in Portland, Maine, who catches pollock, hake, and cod, and has barely fished since the pandemic started. “The price was to the point where you’re not going to make enough money.”

To many in the food industry, the pandemic’s impact has exposed the fundamental vulnerabilities of a system that has long favored efficiency over resilience.  Like supply chains that draw products from many sources but are ultimately contingent on single outlets (e.g., export markets or restaurants). Or the fact that the majority of U.S.-caught seafood is exported to other countries, but—paradoxically—most seafood Americans eat is imported. 

But the sledgehammer of 2020 also demonstrates what can make food systems more resilient to crises. Remarkably, consumers are experiencing a newfound appetite for locally caught, sustainable seafood. And accordingly, a slice of the U.S. fishing industry has fattened slightly this year: small, locally operated fisheries which have built their own supply chains to serve consumers, often delivering directly to their door. No strangers to challenges or disaster, many individual fishermen have also pivoted towards selling directly to the public—with mixed success. Yet what these lessons mean for the future of the industry—and if they’re enough to create resilient fisheries that can weather future storms—remains an open question.

Read the full story at The Counter

BBC Future: How unseasonal winters affect our minds

Image: BBC/Javier Hirschfeld/Getty Images

When my family moved some 20 years ago from rainy London to the German countryside, I was thrilled to live in a place with what I considered a “proper winter”. In January or February, the snow would usually stay with us for a few weeks – sometimes knee-deep and liberating me from school. I’d go sledging, build igloo-like caves, or join my parents throwing snowballs for our dogs and – perhaps unfairly – laugh at their hopeless quests to retrieve them from mounds of snow. But over time, those spectacular winters turned into a mundane drizzle. In recent years, my parents – with whom I usually spend the winter – have rarely seen an inch of snow, and if they did, it quickly turned into slush.

I’m privileged to be distant from the most dramatic effects of climate change, like forest infernos or devastating hurricanes. Yet the silent transformation of winter’s character can also weigh on one’s psyche. To me, it’s more than just a reminder of the wrenching planetary change we’ve caused and the hopelessness and anger I associate with it. There is something unique to witnessing the deterioration of this season. Some Nordic countries have words that come close to this feeling, like the Finnish “lumiahdistus”, describing an anxiety related to desiring snow or not knowing whether it will come. In English, we might sum it up as “winter grief”.

Read my essay for BBC Future about how the loss of true winters is affecting our traditions, culture, and identity.

The Scientist: COVID-19’s Effects on the Brain

The image above shows a slice of a deceased COVID-19 patient’s olfactory bulb, illustrating an area (the blotch on the left) with significant leakage of the protein fibrinogen (fluorescent green) into the tissue, which researchers think is likely the result of damage to small blood vessels. Courtesy of Dragan Meric

Neurological symptoms are not unheard of during pandemics. A British throat specialist observed in the late 1800s that influenza seemed to “run up and down the nervous keyboard stirring up disorder and pain in different parts of the body with what almost seems malicious caprice.” In fact, many patients during the 1889–92 pandemic at the time became afflicted with psychoses, paranoia, stabbing pains, and nerve damage. Scholars have also linked the 1918 flu pandemic to parkinsonism, neuropsychiatric disorders, and other symptoms, although there is some debate around whether some of them were actually caused by the pandemic.

The fact that SARS-CoV-2 is also associated with neurological symptoms isn’t entirely surprising, although the sheer numbers of patients developing such symptoms has alarmed some scientists. The list now includes a range of symptoms, from delirium, strokes, peripheral nerve damage, inflammation of the brain, as well as long-term symptoms like headaches, fatigue, and cognitive difficulties.

Researchers are hard at work trying to figure out how SARS-CoV-2 causes such symptoms. The results so far are a bit puzzling. Though a handful of autopsy studies have found signs of damage in the brains of some COVID-19 patients, it’s still not clear if the virus directly infects the brain. This has pushed researchers to come up with other explanations via which it could affect the human brain.

“I think all of us probably . . . would agree that there is no overwhelming infection of the brain,” Avindra Nath, a neurovirologist at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, told me. “If there is, it’s a very, very miniscule amount. That cannot explain the pathology that we see. It has to be something more than that.”

Read the whole story at The Scientist!

The Scientist: Can Rewilding Large Predators Regenerate Ecosystems?

Image: Matias Rebak

In the absence of firm evidence, conservationists have been eager to interpret early predator reintroduction studies—largely based on the purported regenerative ecological effects of returning gray wolves (Canis lupus) to Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1990s—as a rationale for bringing predators back to many parts of the globe. In Colorado, for instance, conservation organizations have been using such findings to push for the approval of a bill on the November ballot that would effectively mandate wolf reintroduction in the state to restore the ecosystem’s “natural balance.” But some ecologists caution that the ecological outcomes of such projects are unclear. 

In search of answers, scientists are employing novel approaches to study the ecological roles of large carnivores, from the African savannah and the Andean plateau to the ocean, and to understand how ecosystems change as they are lost or reintroduced. What they’re finding is that predators have powerful, yet nuanced and complex effects that ripple through food webs in what are known as trophic cascades—effects that depend not only on the nature of the hunter itself, but also on characteristics of its prey and the habitat the animals share. 

“There’s still good reason to believe that trophic cascades will . . . occur in many systems,” Smith says. “It’s just that we don’t really have all the data yet to understand exactly when, where, and why.”

Read the full story at The Scientist

BBC Future Planet: The daring plan to save the Arctic ice with glass

Image: Arctic Ice Project

One of the most important, yet underappreciated, features of the Arctic sea ice is the ability of its blindingly white surfaces to reflect sunlight. For at least as long as our species has existed, the frozen seas at the top of our world have acted as a massive parasol that helps keep the planet cool and its climate stable.

Yet now, much of that ice is rapidly vanishing. Rising temperatures have locked the Arctic in a self-destructive feedback loop: the warmer it gets, the reflective white ice dissolves into darker, blue water, which absorbs more of the Sun’s warmth rather than reflecting it back into space. Warmer water accelerates melting, which means yet more absorption of heat, which drives further melting – and so on in a vicious cycle that is part of the reason why the Arctic is warming around twice as fast as the rest of the planet. This July, ice cover was as low as it had ever been at that time of the year.

As planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, some have been driven to explore desperate measures. One proposal put forward by the California-based non-profit Arctic Ice Project appears as daring as it is bizarre: to scatter a thin layer of reflective glass powder over parts of the Arctic, in an effort to protect it from the Sun’s rays and help ice grow back. “We’re trying to break [that] feedback loop and start rebuilding,” says engineer Leslie Field, an adjunct lecturer at Stanford University and chief technical officer of the organisation.

Read the rest of the story at BBC Future Planet, or listen to me speaking about it on the Solutions Journalism Podcast

The Scientist: The Immune Hallmarks of Severe COVID-19

Image: US National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases

Why some people die while others recover is thought to depend in large part on the human immune response, which spirals out of control in severe disease. Over the past few months, researchers have developed a better understanding of this dysfunctional immune response. By comparing patients with varying degrees of disease severity, they’ve catalogued a number of dramatic changes across the human immune arsenal that are often apparent when patients first come into the hospital—from signaling cytokine proteins and first-responder cells of the innate immune system, to the B cells and T cells that confer pathogen-specific adaptive immunity.

The factors that trigger this immune dysregulation have so far remained elusive due to the complexity of the immune system, which consists of seemingly endless biological pathways that twist and turn and feed back on one another like a ball of spaghetti. But researchers—drawing on knowledge from other conditions such as sepsis, cancer, and autoimmune disease—are gradually building coherent theories of what puts patients en route to severe disease. Along the way, they’re also uncovering signals that clinicians could use to predict disease prognosis and identify potential new treatment avenues.

“We don’t have the clearest picture yet. Nor do we know why there’s variability in this immune response,” says Nuala Meyer, a critical care physician at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania who researches sepsis. While it’s well-established that underlying conditions increase the risk for developing severe COVID-19, “I definitely see patients with diabetes, obesity, and high lipids that did not become severe [cases],” she says. “I think we have a lot of work to do to understand precisely what accounts for this differential response.”

Read the story at The Scientist

National Geographic: The world missed a critical deadline to safeguard biodiversity

Image: Jim E Maragos, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The bad news is that we’ve failed the Aichi targets, a set of goals world leaders agreed on in 2010 to safeguard the natural world. But scattered throughout the landmark report published in September 2020, there are hints of progress showing that nature fares well where actions are taken to protect it. I spoke with environmental lawyers, historians, indigenous leaders and scientists about how we can scale up those actions and why there’s still hope for a future where humanity lives in harmony with nature.

Read the story at National Geographic.

The Scientist: Genetics Steps In to Tell the Story of Human Origins

In recent years, a field that has traditionally relied on fossil discoveries has acquired helpful new tools: genomics and ancient DNA techniques. Armed with this combination of approaches, researchers have begun to excavate our species’ early evolution, hinting at a far more complex past than was previously appreciated—one rich in diversity, migration, and possibly even interbreeding with other hominin species in Africa. 

“To piece together that story, we need information from multiple different fields of study,” remarks Eleanor Scerri, an archaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. “No single one is really going to have all the answers—not genetics, not archaeology, not the fossils, because all of these areas have challenges and limitations.” 

Read the full story here or in The Scientist‘s September magazine issue