Archive August 2012

Meet eteRNA: “Played by humans, scored by Nature” aimee whitcroft Aug 29

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As regular readers of mine will know, I have something of a jones for citizen science projects. Something of a substantial one, in fact.


And so, it’s with enormous joy that I’d like to introduce y’all to another member of the flock: eteRNA. In this online ‘game’, you get to help advance science by designing RNA*, which is then, if you win the weekly competition, synthesized (i.e. MADE) and scored on how well it folds. The idea is to create the first large-scale library of RNA designs.

The tagline of this online ‘game’ says it all, really: “Played by Humans, scored by Nature”.

Hopefully, you’re thinking at this point of another protein folding game:  Foldit?  Well, eteRNA’s founders hope that it’ll garner similar successes – remember that Foldit has been responsible for some serious scientific publications! De Treuille of Carnegie Mellon university (one of the masterminds behind the game) says: ““This [project] is like putting a molecular chess game in people’s hands at a massive level…I think of this as opening up science. I think we are democratizing science.”

eteRNA’s been out since early 2011 (I can’t believe I didn’t know about it ’til now!), and in that period of time has amassed over 38,000 registered users.

Anyhoo, have a play of it! Not only will you be having fun, but you’ll also be contributing to science, and helping to blur the line between professional and amateur, gamer and scientist. A terribly Renaissance thing to do :)


* Ribonucleic acid. RNA is responsible for moving information from our DNA out to the teensy factories which make proteins and enzymes. RNA also gets used in its raw form directly on DNA (to do various things), and has a host of other functions. It’s _seriously_ clever stuff.


Also, read this Wired article on the subject: New Videogame Lets Amateur Researchers Mess With RNA

MoBIE announces 2012 investment round results aimee whitcroft Aug 24

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The newly formed ‘Ministry of Everything’ – more formally called the Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment – has announced the results of the first tranche of investment round funding.


Apparently, $133m will be invested, over the next 6 years ($32.8m of that this year alone), with 47 research projects being supported.

The split:

Biological Industries Research Fund: 18 projects, including ‘Mammalian pheromone lures’ and ‘Immune technologies for anti-allergy ingredients’ (as a sufferer of the itchies, that last makes me very excited).

Hazards and Infrastructure Research Fund: 8 projects, including ‘Future streets’ and ‘Network infrastructure – connecting Christchurch and New Zealand to the world’.

Energy and Minerals Research Fund: 6 projects, including ‘Energy cultures 2′ and ‘Grid energy storage’.

Environment Research Fund: 7 projects, including ‘Network infrastructure – connecting Christchurch and New Zealand to the world’ and ‘Next generation biodiversity assessment*’.

Health and Society Fund: 8 projects, including ‘Living in the colour-coded city: understanding and building community resilience’ and ‘The participation of older people: independence, contribution, connection’.

For the full results, see here. There’s certainly a wide spread of work, and I’ll be most curious to see how the projects come along over the years! And I’m particularly happy to see that projects around aging and communities are being funded :)

I’m also keen to see the results of the next tranche, in September,  in which funding for high-value manufacturing and services projects will be announced…

* Talking of biodiversity – if you’re interested in said subject, and data, you should be coming along to the Living Data - Biodiversity Data Systems Conference and Workshop conference next week.

Turning octopus gestures into speech aimee whitcroft Aug 22


I’m sure that anyone who’s ever watched an octopus wasn’t in the slightest bit confused today when news broke that octopuses* are, in fact, conscious.

But: ever wondered what octopuses are _saying_ when they languidly wave their tentacles at us? Well, the video below has an answer for you :P

Click here to view the video on YouTube.

(A big thanks to @The_Episiarch for drawing it to my attention)

For anyone who’d like to go and hang out with an octopus or several, go down on a Sunday to the Island Bay Marine Education Centre. Take your friends, and parents, and kids, and everyone else you know. Pay the lovely people your $4 entrance (or $2 if you’re a whippersnapper). It’s worth it.

Oh, and I did I mention they also have a handling pool, into which you can put your hands and TOUCH beasties like snake stars and anemones and starfish and such? And get told about them while you lose the feeling in your fingers (from the cold, people, from the cold)? Well. Consider yourself told :P


* Or octopodes. Not octopi. Seriously. Go look it up for yourself :P

** Watch all of it before commenting :P

Factory farming of the vegetable kind aimee whitcroft Aug 22


Well, I’m back!  We survived not only the Mongol Rally, but the ensuing two weeks in Ulaanbataar (more on that in another post, though).

Vegetable factory farming, China Daily August 18th 2012 , Click to enlarge.

In the meantime, I bring you some Chinese science journalism, courtesy of the free newspaper* on the plane between Ulaanbataar and Beijing. Or possibly Beijing and Hong Kong…

According to the article, a number of countries in East Asia are looking at a new-but-not-really technology for getting their daily 5: factory farms. For veggies.

First developed in Japan in the ’70s, they’re able to grow high yields in artificial environments, neatly dealing with the whole arable land issue.

Not only can these factories produce plants without natural sun/light, but also without real soil! Growing them inside, in  nutrient solution, means that they don’t need cleaning: if you think that’s trivial, look into the gigantic amounts of water and energy used for removing soil from our fresh produce…

It also means that pesticidies and fertilisers aren’t really necessary either – another good thing for people concerned both about food safety and our environment.

And, according to the chap quoted in the article, a Dr Yang Qichang, these veggies are generally of higher quality than their field-grown analogues, containing fewer nitrates and more vitamins.

The factories have been spreading through China and Japan, and are expected to be an important source of food in these regions, given that natural disasters and reaching the limit of convential yield increase technologies are a major factor already.

Anyhoo, for the full article, click on the image above.

Want your own personal vegetable factory? Well, look no further, because “one of Japan’s largest construction companies – Daiwa House recently introduced a line of ready-made hydroponic vegetable units called Agri-Cube.” I think I wants one, given the general horror that is Wellington’s climate :) Video below…

And if you’re interested in other, very clever intensive farming techniques being developed in the East, have a look at a previous blog post of mine about sky farming.

UPDATE: Also check out (thanks to again Tommy Leung, aka @The_Episiarch!)


* I happened to glance at the paper being held by the person in the seat in front of me, and saw this. Awesome :)

Click here to view the video on YouTube.

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