10 Minutes With…
Scientists are far from bringing back a living, breathing mammoth, but one man has taken an important step toward it in his studies of both DNA and evolution itself.
Biologist Kevin L. Campbell has re-created mammoth hemoglobin, a protein that transports oxygen in the blood, which means he has actually reproduced a biological function of an extinct animal.
Campbell, who studied moles until 10 years ago, became interested in mammoths after he read an article in Nature: “I’m sitting here in a coffee room—somebody who studies mole hemoglobin—and I go, ‘Why the hell am I reading about a fish-eating dinosaur from Madagascar?’” Campbell recalls. “And I thought to myself, ‘Well, because it’s cool.’ And I go, ‘Well, what else is cool?’”
“Well,” he said to himself, “mammoths are cool.”
It dawned on Campbell that his understanding of mole hemoglobin, which has unique properties that help moles survive underground with little oxygen, would lend itself to the study of mammoths. This is because the circulatory systems of large Arctic animals have also evolved to conserve energy. Reindeer, for example, can survive frigid temperatures because their hemoglobin has traits that preserve heat in their venous system. Campbell predicted that a similar solution would be found in mammoth hemoglobin.
To test his theory, he enlisted the help of experts in ancient genetics to sequence woolly mammoth DNA, using tissue from the mammoths discovered in permafrost. The DNA was far too fragmented to re-create a whole mammoth, but Campbell was able to re-create the sequence that coded for mammoth hemoglobin by comparing specific stretches of the DNA with those of modern Asian elephants.
Still, Campbell had only letters on a screen—a genetic makeup called a genotype—which proved nothing about the protein’s living function. “Just looking at the letters, it’s kind of like reading a recipe and saying, ‘Oh, this one has vanilla!’” Campbell says. “But if you’ve never had vanilla, you have no idea what it tastes like.”
Campbell took DNA from Asian elephants and used a technique called mutagenesis to selectively switch around the letters of the DNA, and rewrote it into that of a woolly mammoth. He then injected the modified molecule into E. coli bacteria, which reproduced the mammoth hemoglobin as though it were their own.
It was the first time scientists were able to not only see the recipe but—metaphorically—taste it.
Mammoth hemoglobin could eventually have medical applications in humans. In order to prevent swelling from heart and brain injuries, doctors sometimes reduce patients’ body temperatures, but doing so reduces the efficiency of their hemoglobin, meaning they can’t get enough oxygen. It’s possible that the re-engineered mammoth blood might provide the best adaptation to cold temperatures available. But, as Campbell says, there is no guarantee that the technology will ever effectively help save anybody’s life.
More basically, Campbell’s work presents scientists with a new tool for learning about animals and evolution. Bringing back a biological molecule that hasn’t been on Earth for 10,000 years is an impressive feat in its own right.
Like space travel or theoretical physics, he says, the most important thing about his work might be the discovery itself, the way it stretches the imagination.
After all, any kid can tell you—mammoths are cool.
Raj Patel strides across the stage at UC Berkeley’s Wheeler Auditorium, slide-show clicker in hand, with the authority of a scholar and the charisma of a performer.
He flashes a photograph of an enraged crowd of Haitians that took to the streets in 2008 to protest food shortages. “I’m told that with a PowerPoint, we should begin with a motivational slide,” he jokes. Then, he turns serious: “This is why a lot of people think it’s a good idea to feed the world. It’s because when the world goes hungry, people are angry.”
Patel, an economist and writer, was visiting the university to talk about how the power to distribute food is in the hands of a
privileged few, and that it’s up to common folks to find ways to feed the 870 million people who are malnourished.
The food crisis isn’t about crop shortages, a lack of appropriate technologies, or even the public’s will to experiment, Patel says. Rather, the problem arises because a few multinational corporations like Glencore (one of the world’s largest publicly traded commodities supplier), PepsiCo, Nestle, and Kraft dominate most of the farming, processing, and marketing of the world’s food, robbing poor communities of their basic right to control what they consume. Systems of global food distribution rely on monoculture, or producing only one crop in an area for several years, and the heavy use of pesticides.
This structure favors the wealthy owners and beneficiaries and results in starvation in some places and diet-related disease in others. In developing countries, rural farmers struggle to feed their families with the meager earnings they get for their crops. In industrialized nations, affordable meals are often packed with sugar, salt, and preservatives linked to diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. “We produce more calories per person than ever before,” Patel says, yet many people are undernourished, because they lack access to healthy options.
Patel has made waves promoting international food justice, a movement that questions how food travels from farm to plate and who benefits or suffers along the way. He’s known for his first book, Stuffed and Starved, about the contradictions of a world where some die from eating too much and others from eating too little. He also worked for the World Trade Organization and World Bank—but later protested their policies around the world.
Now he is on a new mission: to explore concrete solutions to the global food crisis through a book, documentary, and multimedia project called Generation Food, which launched in 2012. Patel’s motivation is partly personal—his own father is suffering from diet-related disease. “I don’t want my children’s fate to be the same, when there’s so much we can do to prevent it,” he says.
The goal of Generation Food is to gather and share success stories of alternative food systems across the globe. For Patel, it’s clear that communities flourish when they seek their own sustainable solutions to growing and providing for their own diets.
In impoverished northern Malawi, for instance, the Soil, Food, and Healthy Communities project focuses on ecologically sustainable farming techniques, such as using nitrogen-fixing legumes to provide shade, and planting pre-colonial native crops like pearl millet and sorghum to diversify the corn diet introduced by the British. In doing so, it is improving food access to produce for 70,000 people living in the region.
But for Patel, what’s just as crucial is that these farmers are experimenting in the fields and sharing their findings with one another through a decentralized, democratic effort. They are scientists, Patel says: They hypothesize, experiment, and meet regularly to share their results.
He adds: “It’s a peer-to-peer network, like file-sharing without the electricity, but just as sophisticated.”
Patel says these kinds of innovative ideas—ones that put power in the hands of locals—are going to feed the world. He can name a slew of other ideas he’s keen on exploring through Generation Food, all of which have sprung from what he calls local conversations: A Detroit high school for pregnant teens that folds urban agriculture into its curriculum. A cooperatively owned grocery store and health-resource center in an Oakland, California, neighborhood with little access to affordable, nutritious choices. Peruvian farmers who are collectively deciding how to cultivate crops at higher elevations. Japanese activists who are promoting “gastronomic patriotism,” a way to reclaim health through eating a diet similar to that of their grandparents.
At the same time, Patel insists, solving the global food crisis is not just about back-to-the-land movements. The most promising solutions involve using both old and new knowledge to profoundly rethink the way we produce, consume, and distribute food. What is best for the local people should trump corporate interests.
Patel speaks on these issues at universities and conferences around the world. When people ask what they can do to help, he resists pointing to a panacea.
“People always ask me that: ‘I’m just one person; what can I do?’ But that’s where the first mistake lies,” Patel says. “You’re not alone. Find out who lives in your community. We are more powerful than we realize.”
These days it’s hard to live life in public without being monitored. Cities around the world are loaded with security cameras posted at ATMs, traffic intersections, stores, and buildings. In many places, including the San Francisco Bay Area, police wear cameras to record interactions with citizens, and, since the 2001 Patriot Act, federal authorities maintain the right to subpoena your phone records at will.
But if any citizen can be monitored, shouldn’t police and government officials be scrutinized, too?
That’s an idea advanced by Rich Jones, self-proclaimed anarchist and founder of OpenWatch. The San Francisco-based tech company develops and distributes smartphone apps that make it easy for anybody to discreetly record audio and video of public exchanges with police or government officials.
With his baggy clothes and beanie, Jones looks like one of the many Bay Area young adults who have turned their backs on the white-collar world. Just 25 years old, Jones already has deep experience in the tech world. Since college, he has founded and nurtured four tech start-ups, including a service that allows people to download massive files anonymously and a job-finding site for freelance web coders.
It was while he was a student in Boston that Jones experienced a defining moment: He witnessed police beating a man, and was able to record the entire incident on his phone.
“I was always pretty anti-authoritarian and pro freedom of information,” he says. “But I think witnessing the violent misconduct of the Boston PD was definitely the major catalyst for the project.”
Since he founded OpenWatch in 2010, it has gone from offering an audio-only smartphone app for Andriod and iPhone to, in addition, an Android app called OpenWatch Recorder that also logs video. In two years, the company has accumulated more than 11,000 unedited files, including ones documenting police searches and arrests, Jones says. Police officers have even used the app to document official meetings to protect themselves during internal investigations.
Of course, anyone with a smartphone can easily record audio and video. The problem arises when police take a phone as evidence and destroy footage. Stories of this phenomenon abound. In 2011, in Springfield, Massachusetts, police allegedly deleted footage a man had taken of his own arrest. Later, the man’s lawyers claimed the video could have exonerated him of the charge of assaulting a police officer. Evidence destruction can be avoided using an app like OpenWatch Recorder, because everything picked up by the phone’s receiver is simultaneously transmitted to a server in Texas, along with time and location data.
If recordings were made ubiquitously, it would be possible to identify patterns and trends in police actions. Without relying on police officials as intermediaries, citizens could identify officers who repeatedly violate civil rights. If they know they’re being watched, police agencies may do more to compel officers to restrain themselves. Agencies also can avoid hiring officers who have a documented history of violating civil liberties, Jones says.
Recently an OpenWatch user in Southern California recorded a police officer making a warrantless and illegal search at a DUI checkpoint. The incident resembled another illegal search recorded by a different user, also in Southern California, suggesting a problem with police behavior in the region. This is crowdsourcing “big data” in a radically new way.
Ultimately, Jones’ goal is to upset the status quo of overweening police authority. He also wants to make information available to the masses to reach new, unheard-of levels of transparency in corporate and government bodies, stirring social change.
Beyond his “personal love of causing trouble,” Jones says, his intention is to empower ordinary people, and to call out “the powerful on their bullshit.”
The year was 2009, and the recession was carving its mark into people and businesses around the nation. Meanwhile, Mira Luna, a Bay Area-based social and environmental activist, had lost her life’s savings to medical bills while fighting Lyme disease. In her 30s, the petite brunette was too sick to work, and she was broke.
She knew others who were also in debt and had more time than money. As a writer for Shareable, an online magazine about the power of sharing, Luna has long understood the potential of barter. She was frustrated that “money is king” in our society: “In the simplest sense, [money is] scarce,” even when labor is not, Luna says. “It’s hard to earn it unless there are jobs, and that scarcity has a power over us—indeed, I think it’s intended to.”
So, with the help of friends and activists, Luna cofounded the Bay Area Community Exchange, a program that allows anyone to trade volunteer hours for services. An online “time bank” enables people to link up and do favors for one another.
What’s innovative is that the bank keeps track of each individual’s time. Every hour spent doing a task for someone else earns you one hour in your account, which can be spent on services by other members. Nearly 3,000 users have profiles listing skills they offer, such as writing, carpentry, and legal advice.
Sometimes, the exchange of time is a direct trade: Have a degree in accounting? Give a tailor an hour and a half of financial advice, and earn 90 minutes to spend later on alterations. Want to start a community garden? Volunteer for a couple of hours at a farm in exchange for its seeds, as well as someone to help you hoe. In the process, no cash whatsoever is spent.
Exchanges can also be complex transactions of three or more parties. One of the bank’s success stories involves Zach Cohen, a Berkeley resident and bike mechanic who started volunteering at a community bicycle and repair shop after joining the forum. Cohen accrued hours in his account and spent them on members who had business management and publicity skills when he opened his own bicycle repair shop. Now, other volunteers can give their time to his shop and accumulate hours to spend on different services they need.
Luna spent her own hours in 2012, when she hosted a San Francisco festival for sharing sustainable-living skills. The gathering was staffed by other time bankers, allowing her to pull off an event that otherwise would have cost thousands of dollars, she says.
Time banks are working in many places, from major cities like Chicago and New York to far-flung corners of the nation like Kettle Falls, Washington, and Eureka Springs, Arkansas. But despite the success of some time banks, Luna says she knows it’s hard to keep unconventional banks operating for the long run. Ironically, it often comes down to money. “Alternative currencies are tough to make sustainable because they often depend partly on money to run,” she says. It costs money to host the web forum, print publicity materials, and buy food and drinks at meeting spaces like coffee shops.
Economists point out that because time banks are part of an informal economy, governments lose tax revenue from bartered goods and services that go undeclared. Some argue this hurts the larger community and could indirectly harm those involved in sharing. Luna says she believes that as long as time banks remain small, that won’t be a significant issue. She looks forward to a day when the time-bank model is taken seriously alongside market capitalism.
Spending, she says, often hinders face-to-face connections. Alternative exchanges, on the other hand, “creates a sense of trust that your community will take care of you in good or bad times,” she says.