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The world is entering yet another year of a global pandemic caused by a virus—but COVID-19 is hardly the only virus out there. While some viruses can be deadly, others help keep organisms alive and there is even debate about whether viruses themselves should be considered living things.

However, it looks like a hungry microorganism may be a natural foe to some viruses. In a study published in December 2023 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln found that a virus-only diet is enough to fuel the growth of a species of Halteria. Halteria is a one-celled ciliate that lives in freshwater around the world and the team found that they can eat huge numbers of infectious chloroviruses at a time.

[Related: Ancient frozen viruses don’t pose a threat to your health—yet.]

The team calls this virus exclusive diet “virovory.”

Chloroviruses are known to replicate by infecting microscopic green algae that normally live inside a species of paramecium. They can then burst these single-celled hosts like balloons, causing carbon and other elements critical to sustaining life to spill out into the water. That carbon then gets sucked up by other microorganisms.

“That’s really just keeping carbon down in this sort of microbial soup layer, keeping grazers from taking energy up the food chain,” said John DeLong, associate professor of biological sciences at Nebraska and a co-author of the study, in a statement.

However, if ciliates like Halteria are eating those same viruses, then virovory could act as a counter balance to the carbon recycling that the viruses are known to perpetuate. Vivory might be helping carbon move up the food chain, according to DeLong.

“If you multiply a crude estimate of how many viruses there are, how many ciliates there are and how much water there is, it comes out to this massive amount of energy movement (up the food chain),” said DeLong. He estimated that ciliates in a small pond might eat 10 trillion viruses a day.

DeLong built on the university’s previous work on chloroviruses and was already familiar with how they can entangle themselves in a food web. Research by co-authors ecologist James Van Etten and virologist David Dunigan showed that chloroviruses can gain access to algae, which are normally covered in a genus of ciliates called Paramecia. This access can only happen when small crustaceans eat the Paramecia and poop out the the newly exposed algae.

DeLong thought that viruses could be a source of food and energy. To test the hypothesis, he collected samples at a nearby pond and then corralled all of the microorganisms into drops of the water and added a lot of chlorovirus.

After sitting for 24 hours, the drops were searched for signs that any of the present species were reacting to the chlorovirus present. It turns out, Halteria was treating the virus more like a snack instead of a physical threat.

[Related: Ask Us Anything: Can viruses be good for us?]

“At first, it was just a suggestion that there were more of them [the ciliates],” DeLong said. “But then they were big enough that I could actually grab some with a pipette tip, put them in a clean drop, and be able to count them.”

In only two days, the number of chloroviruses dropped up to 100-fold. The Halteria had no other source of food other than the virus, and its population was growing 15 times larger, while the chlorovirus population wasn’t expanding at all.

The team tagged some of the DNA in the chlorovirus with a green dye to confirm that the Halteria was eating the virus. The ciliate equivalent of a stomach called the vacuole, was soon glowing green.

The research from this study may have some important implications. These viruses play an integral part in shaping their freshwater environments in the way that they recycle carbon and other nutrients and this recycling can prevent the energy from reaching other, larger forms of life. However, if something is eating these viruses, that are then consumed by bigger organisms, some of the nutrients and energy that would normally be recycled might work their way up the food chain instead.

“[Viruses are] made up of really good stuff: nucleic acids, a lot of nitrogen and phosphorous,” DeLong said. “Everything should want to eat them. So many things will eat anything they can get ahold of. Surely something would have learned how to eat these really good raw materials.”

The next steps for the team will happen once winter ends in the Midwest. They plan to go back to the pond to see if virovory is occurring in the wild, not just a lab setting.

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Who Will Be First To “Hack The Code” Of Aging?

In 2014, Joon Yun, founder of the Palo Alto Institute in California, announced the $1 million Palo Alto Longevity Prize. Its goal: to “hack the code” of aging.

The first half will go to the first group to restore homeostatic capacity—the body’s ability to stabilize after experiencing stress. “Until midlife, it is so pervasively effective that we don’t realize we have homeostatic capacity until we start losing it,” Yun says.

The hitch is, no one knows how to measure it, and so the prize will use proxies such as heart-rate variability, and award whichever team can get an aging animal’s heart pumping like it’s young again. The other half of the prize will go to the first group that’s able to extend the life of a mammal by 50 percent.

So far, 30 teams from across the world have signed up to compete, including research groups at schools such as Stanford University and the University of Nebraska Medical Center, and teams from the private sector, such as Volt Health, led by a medical-device designer. The clock is ticking—they have until December 31, 2023 to win.

Private Investigators

Some of the biggest names in biotech have joined the effort to forestall aging. They’re well-funded, well-staffed, and largely working in secret.

Calico CyteGen

In late 2024, Breakout Labs, a philanthropic venture founded by Peter Thiel, announced CyteGen will be folded into its portfolio of “radical science companies.” CyteGen’s goal: to use a proprietary drug-discovery platform in order to find health-span-increasing drugs that target cell metabolism.

Human Longevity Inc.

Geneticist J. Craig Venter took aim at longevity with the 2013 launch of Human Longevity Inc. In October, the company announced its first Health Nucleus facility, which offers personalized analysis of an individual’s genome. That data, in turn, will help build a whole-genome database that feeds research on risk factors for age-related diseases.

The Ethics Of Life Extension

A treatment that extends life span might be tantalizing, but if it’s expensive or inaccessible, it could also make existing healthcare inequalities worse, says Alexander Capron, an expert in health policy and ethics at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law. Life expectancy in the U.S. is already tied strongly to socioeconomic status: People in wealthier counties, such as those surrounding New York City, tend to live longer, while those in the rural South face a shorter life expectancy and poorer health.

Life Expectancy at Birth, 2013

Colors represent how many years a person born in 2013 can expect to live, by U.S. county. Map based on data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation—Popular Science combined figures for women and men to obtain a total average life expectancy at birth.

Who Needs A Body Anyway?

Martine Rothblatt

Martine Rothblatt is many things—CEO of biotech company United Therapeutics, founder of Sirius Radio, inventor, lawyer, and medical ethicist—but foremost, she is a futurist. Specifically, Rothblatt believes in transhumanism, or the indefinite extension of human life through technology.

As a result of the growing ubiquity of digital devices, I believe that all of our mannerisms, recollections, feelings, beliefs, attitudes—everything about our lives—will be collected and stored in the cloud. We are creating a simu­lacrum of ourselves outside our bodies. I call this our “mindfile.”

At the same time, we’re developing ever-better digital assistants that use voice recognition and artificial intelligence. They even have different personalities, like Siri. I call this software “mindware.” And I think the convergence of mindfiles and mindware will produce a seemingly conscious replica of any person—a “mindclone.”

One of the projects my company has been working on is a cognitive enabler for Alzheimer’s disease. An individual beginning to suffer would be able to store enough personality and recollections digitally that, when combined with a camera and voice recognition, he or she can interact with friends and family through the technology—even once no longer able to do so through his or her own brain.

People have always been afraid of things that are different and weird. But when the weirdness of cyberconsciousness blends with the love for family members, people will see cyberconsciousness as innocuous. By 2030, I believe there will be a social movement of people whose grandmother, sister, or friend has a fatal disease, and who say their mindclones should be legally recognized as a continuation of themselves.

Ultimately, the Internet of Things will enable mind­­clones to travel, present themselves ever more freely and with greater ubiquity, and even transcend legal death. —As told to Matt Giles

This article was originally published in the March/April 2024 issue of Popular Science, as part of our “How To Live Forever” feature.

These Tiny Living Robots Could Help Science Eavesdrop On Cellular Gossip

An entirely new being is swimming into the annals of science—a living robot designed by artificial intelligence.

In a paper published earlier this week, computer scientists from the University of Vermont and biophysicists at Tufts University describe using AI to design a totally new organism made of frog stem cells—and actually creating a tiny, living robot based on those designs. Their primary goal is to use the cutting-edge critters to better understand how cells of all sorts communicate with one another.

These “xenobots” can’t eat, can’t reproduce, and only live for about a week—so Frankenfrog invasions should not be high on your list of concerns. What they can do is walk, swim, push or carry objects, and work together in groups. Those are substantial accomplishments for first-of-their-kind robots made out of a mishmash of cells.

To accomplish this, the University of Vermont team came up with an AI capable of running tens of thousands of simulations on how differently-shaped combinations of skin cells and heart cells would behave if they were built in the real world. The Tufts team used some of those predictions to build a functional organism out of stem cells taken from frog embryos.

The team harvests those cells by trimming off a peripheral region of the embryo, which would normally develop into skin or heart muscle later in the growth process. They manually fragment the tissue into single cells and place them into what’s basically a mold.

It’s sort of like making Jello: All scrambled up, you might not expect these individual cells to be able to coordinate. In other words, the Jello would never go from liquid goop to a wiggly, semi-solid foodstuff. But “what they build is not just a mess,” says Tufts University biophysicist Michael Levin. “It is a functional, coherent organism.”

That organism moves based on the properties of its heart muscle cells, which are designed to contract (this is how your heart beats.) The skin cells help hold everything together, just like they do in a body, says Michigan State University microbiologist Christopher Adami, who was not involved with the study.

After they pop the xenobot out of its mold, the team manually trims it to the shape predicted by the AI design. They’ve created a recipe for a xenobot that will move around—and it produces organisms that perform the same functions every time, says Levin. Such creatures could eventually have practical applications outside the lab, like improving drug delivery.

This is just the first step. “The translation of a computer-generated organism into a biological organism is a new thing,” Adami says. But it’s not clear how long it will take for this method to yield medical technology, or even provide new insight into how cells work.

However, it’s promising. “Transferrals of robot behavior from simulation to reality are extremely difficult, and this new paper shows impressive results,” Yale University robotics engineer Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio told Popular Science in an email. “The team’s use of living cells to achieve the simulated designs and behaviors is an especially promising indication of our future ability to generate bio-compatible robots, and soft robots that leverage the resiliency and intelligence of living tissues.”

At this point, the team is focused on primary science, not sci-fi medical possibilities. They’re working on creating recipes for xenobots that more clearly demonstrate how cells communicate with one another. We know they use methods like electricity and chemical signals to coordinate, but at present, we have no idea what they’re saying to one another, or how they decide what shapes to build.

Although it might sound like something from science fiction, humans reshape organisms all the time, and have been doing so for millennia. But the process normally takes decades, or even centuries—think about domesticated crops like corn, which don’t look much like their wild ancestors—and the exact end result is almost impossible to control.

Bongard acknowledges that creating totally new organisms raises a lot of ethical questions—even though these organisms aren’t capable of thinking or feeling as we would understand it. As technology develops, he says, we may eventually need to come up with regulations to ensure the xenobots are treated ethically.

However, “They’re not alive in the sense that you would normally think about it,” Adami notes. “These are tissues that react under stimulation.”

It remains to be seen what will happen to the bots, and what they can tell us about how cells work. What Levin is most excited about is studying how cells communicate. “The big picture here from the biology side is to understand how individual cells cooperate and how they decide what bodies to build,” says Levin. “This is really a sandbox.”

Understanding cellular communication is going to be essential to the future of the biological sciences, he says. “We’re basically where computer science was in the ‘40s, where in order to reprogram something, you had to move wires around and reprogram the hardware,” he says In this case, that means genetic engineering. “We have to move forward toward a better understanding of the software.”

To do that, however, Adami says that developing finer physical control of the cells may be necessary. At this point, the team has to physically build the xenobots, and although they’re hoping to eventually automate the process, Adami says the technology to simply 3D print such an organism is a lot way off.

“These things are embryos. They’re small. And I don’t think we have the machinery really to do this at the level you would like to do it,” Adami says.

Even in small numbers, however, the tiny beings could yield important information about how cells get themselves in formation.

The First Honeybee Vaccine Could Protect The Entire Hive, Starting With The Queen

The world’s first insect vaccine is here, and it could help with stopping a fatal bacterial disease in honeybees. A study published on October 17 in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science found honeybees born from vaccinated queens were more resistant to American Foulbrood (AFB) infection than hives with unvaccinated queens. Not only would the vaccine help in improving colony health, but it might increase commercial beekeeping to make products, such as honey and medical wax.

Several factors have contributed to declining honeybee populations—higher temperatures from climate change, pesticides, and drought to name a few. “Bee health is a multifaceted problem and many factors play into the survival or perishing of a beehive,” says Dalial Freitak, associate professor at the University of Graz in Austria and senior author of the study. “As in any organism, diseases can cause havoc, especially if other stressors are at play.” The current vaccine tackles AFB, a devastating disease that’s caused early outbreaks in US beehives since the early 1900s. 

AFB is caused by the spores of the larva of the bacteria Paenibacillus. Young honeybees ingest the spores in their foods and in one to two days, the spores take root in their gut, sprouting out rod structures. Like an aggressive cancer tumor, the rods quickly multiply before invading the blood and body tissues and killing the young insect larva from the inside. By the time they die, new spores have formed to infect the bees that come in to clean up the honeycomb cells where the deceased laid. Beekeepers may also accidentally spread the disease by exposing contaminated honey or equipment to other bees. Freitak estimates at least 50 percent of beehives globally have AFB. While cultivators may not see any noticeable symptoms of the disease at first, it can feel like a ticking “time bomb” with an outbreak potentially happening at any moment, she says.

The recent study tests the safety and effectiveness of an oral breeder vaccine—an immunization that’s passed down from parents—to increase resistance against Paenibacillus larva. The oral vaccine is mixed into a new queen’s food which she ingests before being introduced into the hive. Once digested, the vaccine contents are transferred into the fat body, the storage organ in insects. Vitellogenin, or the yolk proteins that provide nutrients for growing embryos, bind to pieces of the vaccine and deliver it to eggs in the ovaries. “A little piece of vaccine into the ovaries stimulates an immune response and it’s where you need it the most,” says Annette Kleiser, the CEO of biotech company Dalan Animal Health that created the vaccine. “A lot of these diseases are when the larvae get infected in the first few days when they hatch.”

[Related: Do we still need to save the bees?]

In the current study, two queen honeybees were vaccinated with either the vaccine or the placebo before entering their hive and laying eggs. After the eggs hatched, the two hives were brought to the lab (to avoid infecting other colonies in the wild) and exposed to AFB spores for several days. The team found that vaccinating the queen decreased the risk of AFB by 30 to 50 percent. What’s more, the vaccine did not impact the health of bee colonies. The study authors saw no difference in hive losses between the placebo and vaccinated groups before spore exposure.

“They have shown a proof-of-concept,” says Ramesh Sagili, a professor of apiculture at Oregon State University who was not affiliated with the study. He notes, however, the study took place in an isolated, lab-controlled setting and the challenge with this type of technology is the lack of success when tested in the field. One suggestion is to conduct large-scale field studies, expanding from two honeybee hives to thousands split between vaccine and placebo groups. Other questions Sagili would like answered in future research is how the vaccine fares against different AFB strains and how long immunity lasts in the long-run.

“I’m convinced they have something promising here, but only if they do some large-scale field studies with the beekeeping industry,” adds Sagili. If successful, he says this could open doors to the production of vaccines for other viral diseases plaguing honeybees.

Still, finding solutions to assist honeybees with illness is important: “A declining honeybee population has made it difficult to pollinate enough food for everyone to eat,” explains Kleiser.

Honeybees pollinate one-third of food in the US. Beyond honey, they are essential for the production of apples, broccolis, melons, and even your favorite cup of java. But as much service honeybees provide, humanity has provided them a disservice in keeping them safe and alive. Beekeepers estimated a 45.5 percent loss in honeybee colonies from April 2023 to April 2023, which is largely associated with human activity. According to the United Nations, if bees continue to disappear, we may see permanent disruptions in our food supply chain and the disappearance of fruits, vegetables, and other crops heavily dependent on pollination.

[Related: Temperature tells honey bees what time it is]

There are other options currently on the table to mitigate the spread of AFB. Once beekeepers notice the first signs of disease, they can burn the honey, tools, and other equipment in contact with the hive. Additionally, they could quarantine the hive to prevent infected bees from swarming nearby colonies. However, both options aren’t ideal because they slow down honey production and affect the food supply chain. “You have a withdrawal period where you have to wait and that costs money to beekeepers,” says Kleiser. “The flowers won’t wait so if you miss the season you miss your entire yield.” 

Another option is antibiotics. Sagili explains that antibiotics are effective against AFB, and beekeepers have been using antibiotics to manage the spread of spores. Because of its availability, he says it doesn’t rise to the level of other challenges that honeybees presently face. That said, there is always a risk of antibiotic resistance that could lower honeybees’ protection against the bacterium. “Beekeepers have options, but it would be nice to have a vaccine for [AFB] so they have one less problem to deal with,” Sagili says.

Right now, the vaccine is pending conditional license by the US Department of Agriculture Center of Veterinary Biologics. Kleiser emphasizes the vaccine would not only benefit bees, but the larger ecosystem as well. “It’s a survival issue,” she says. “We have to understand the critical importance of these animals.”

Big Eyes Coin Could Be The New Dogecoin And Shiba Inu

The meme currency market has been growing steadily since 2023 when DogeCoin (DOGE) made a big breakthrough. Meme currencies like Shiba Inu (SHIB) and others are entering the market to compete with DogeCoin (DOGE).

There has been a steady stream of dog-related meme coins for some time now. However, Big Eyes Coin (BIG), which features an adorable kitten, may be the catalyst for a sea change in the industry.

Big Eyes Coin (BIG), a brand-new meme coin released in 2023, has already generated a ton of buzz before its official launch. Experts in the cryptocurrency market predict that Big Eyes Coin (BIG) will surpass both the SHIB and DOGE tokens in popularity, making it the biggest meme of all time.

To determine whether or not Big Eyes Coin (BIG) poses a serious challenge to DOGE-SHIB’s reign and whether or not you should invest in it, read on.

This Dog Is Having Its Day – Dogecoin (DOGE)

Among all meme coins, DogeCoin (DOGE) stands head and shoulders above the rest in terms of both value and popularity. Additionally, it is the tenth most valuable cryptocurrency, with a coin market cap of nearly $9 billion.

However, many crypto stakeholders and analysts are not as enthusiastic about the meme coin’s climb in 2023 as they were when it first emerged as king due to its extreme volatility. Despite the fact that the DOGE token rides exclusively on the community excitement of major members like Elon Musk and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, the cryptocurrency’s rapid decline following its all-time high in 2023 came as no surprise to crypto analysts.

DogeCoin (DOGE) is gaining popularity as a form of payment even though it has no real-world applications or utility and is not backed by any real-world infrastructure. DOGE can be used to purchase various goods and services, including those from AMC Theaters, Tesla Motors, Airbaltic, and more.

The Main Meme Contender — Shiba Inu (SHIB)

Shiba Inu (SHIB) was only introduced to the cryptocurrency market in 2023, but its ecosystem has expanded rapidly in that short time, making the SHIB token a great success. Shiba Inu (SHIB) has a coin market cap of $7.20 billion, making it the 12th most valuable cryptocurrency.

Based on its recent success on the market, Shiba Inu (SHIB) has become the second most valuable meme coin, right behind DogeCoin (DOGE). Although the SHIB token has done so well in a short period, circumstances were not always so bright; the currency did not begin soaring until six months after introduction, when it started acquiring significant price spikes that attracted buyers.

The widespread adoption of Shiba Inu (SHIB) as a platform for facilitating decentralized contracts and projects is a primary factor in the exponential development of its ecosystem.

The New Kitten Causing A Purr — Big Eyes Coin (BIG)

Big Eyes (BIG) is a community-driven meme coin with the goal of introducing wealth to the DeFi space by creating an ecosystem that generously distributes more of its tokens to its users and charities to improve the world’s economy (NFTs). Many people are investing in the project while it is still in the presale phase since its use case has received widespread praise from prominent crypto investors and experts.

Big Eyes (BIG) is a community-driven and community-run DeFi project with the overarching goal of protecting the oceans, a vital component of the planet’s ecosystem.

Big Eyes (BIG) will dedicate 5% of its 200 billion BIG tokens to a public charity wallet that will be used exclusively to protect marine life and increase the ocean’s ability to support human life. According to Big Eyes’ mission, these five percent will be donated to marine reserves to ensure the survival of marine life.

To get more information about the coin and the native project, visit this link.

Use code BIG5373 for a 5% bonus when buying coins Big Eyes Coin (BIG)

Private Dell + Microsoft: Now This Could Be Interesting

Dell has been signaling for some time that it wanted to go private.

The benefits are clear: they could operate more strategically for a few years and rebuild the company for the future they believe is coming. And they could avoid problems with financial analysts pounding their stock into insignificance because of capital spending, acquisitions and sharply reduced profits during the time of transition. Going private also reduces substantially the costs associated with being a large public company, which can pull more than 20 percent off the firm’s bottom line.

However, the problem is that a firm of Dell’s size typically can’t find enough long-term investors to keep the amount of debt, and related interest, down to a manageable level. The cost of debt financing coupled with the natural increase in the firm’s valuation just before the deal is executed can make it almost impossible to complete.

Microsoft has a lot of cash to invest. It is fighting against the idea that it is becoming obsolete, and it could be worried companies like Dell may decide to go vertical. With one move, Microsoft would get a strong investment where they have a great deal to say about its success and a far closer partnership with Dell.

On paper, the result could even make Apple nervous.

This proposal isn’t without risk, and it isn’t a done deal yet. But the result could be a very interesting.

The problem with this deal is Microsoft’s other partners. Firms like HP, Lenovo, Acer, Asus and Samsung may take issue with Microsoft getting so close to one of their competitors. The Dell deal could actually accelerate their moves away from the Microsoft.

Were this to happen the collateral damage from those firms moving away from Microsoft toward a competitor like Google could easily exceed the benefits to Microsoft doing the deal.

However, with Google’s Motorola’s ties and its reputation for being harder to work with than Microsoft, that avenue isn’t very attractive. So if Microsoft can firewall this deal, and convince these outside partners that the firewall will hold, they’ll likely go along—grudgingly.

There is one partnership that could be used as a template for what Dell and Microsoft are exploring. That is the VCE partnership among Cisco, EMC, VMware, and Intel.

EMC nearly owns VMware. But VMware continues to operate relatively unfettered with EMC’s competitors. Intel has put substantial resources into the partnership, but that hasn’t seemed to hurt their relationship with the firms that compete with VCE. To make VCE work, it was designed with the attributes of an independent company but the backing of powerhouses.

And this could provide a baseline that AMD, Intel, Juniper Networks or some other major player might want to get in on. They could both co-fund and benefit from the result.

The one other interesting part of this deal is what would likely happen to Microsoft’s Surface tablet.

Ideally, Surface could be handled by the VCE-like partnership or Dell itself. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some kind of play that makes Surface and the additional planned Microsoft hardware some part of this deal.

If backed by both vendors, the resulting products could be far more powerful and the lines more complete. If they do contemplate a VCE-like move, the Surface team could become the executive managers of this new partnership entity, along with a bunch of Dell volunteers.

What really makes this news big is the change in the relationship between Microsoft and one of its most powerful and most engaged partners.

Done right, what could emerge is a vastly more coupled set of products—software that more aggressively takes into account hardware improvements and hardware that more aggressively drives software improvements. This could do a lot to fix what has been a large communications gap between Microsoft and all its partners. And it could result in a new virtual entity that rivals VCE but targets the consumer and mid-market much more aggressively.

In short, Apple should likely worry about this one.

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