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Test-Tube-to-Table: 11 Up-and-Coming Genetically Engineered Animals

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© Najlah Feanny/CORBIS SABA

It's been almost 16 years since Dolly the cloned sheep was born. As she fades from our cultural memory, here’s a look at 11 up-and-coming (and often controversial) genetically engineered animals that might start appearing in backyards and on dinner tables near you.

1. Remote Control Rats

Photo: CC bclinesmith

By attaching wires to rats’ brains, a group of scientists at SUNY found in 2002 that they could get the little guys to turn left and right by remote control. While some animal rights activists freaked out—one of the scientists even admitted that the idea was “sort of creepy”—Paul Root Wolpe, a bioethics professor at Emory University, wasn’t moved. In an issue of GeneWatch Magazine last year, he asked if programming “roborats” was really that different from training dolphins to perform or oxen to pull.

2. Sexually Successful, Ageless Fruit Flies That Can Smell Light

Scientists have subjected fruit flies to all kinds of genetic alterations over the years, creating some that mate quickly, but carry a sterile gene, others that produce only male or only female offspring, others that avoid normal aging patterns, and others still that are able to “smell” blue light. While the USDA hoped the first two experiments could help control fruit fly populations in agricultural regions, the latter two have helped scientists understand how neurons and free radicals work within fruit flies—revelations that might one day extend to humans.

3. Enviropigs

Researchers at Ontario’s University of Guelph genetically altered a Yorkshire pig to produce poop that is 30-to-70% less polluting than the average pig’s poop—a major source of phosphorous in large-scale hog farming. By engineering the pig to digest a particular form of phosphorous in its food, the developers found they could reduce the total amount of phosphorous in the pig’s poop.

4. Glow-in-the-Dark Beagles

Photo: A fluorescent puppy at Seoul National University's College of Veterinary Medicine in 2009. © JO YONG-HAK/Reuters/Landov

A team of South Korean scientists injected a gene into a two-year-old beagle named Tegon that made her glow in the dark. "Tegon opens new horizons since the gene injected to make the dog glow can be substituted with genes that trigger fatal human diseases," said lead researcher Lee Byeong-chun told Reuters.

Scientists hope that Tegon and other animals—including a rhesus monkey and piglets that have been made to glow—will help them identify complications from diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

5. Fast-Growing Salmon

The FDA is currently reviewing the possibility of allowing genetically engineered salmon, which grow nearly twice as fast as regular salmon, into supermarkets and onto American dinner tables. If it’s allowed, these special salmon would be the first officially genetically engineered food to become a part of the human food supply (although there have been some isolated slip-ups in the past). Advocates say the fast-growing salmon would be a boon to some farmers, while critics argue that they would be bad for the environment, the health of salmon populations, and for humans who may get fewer nutrients and more allergens from the food.

6. Pharmaceutical Dairy Cows

Scientists have found a way to create medicine using proteins extracted from the milk of genetically-engineered goats, cows and rabbits. That’s actually pretty old news—scientists have been doing that since 1989—but the field has continued to grow recently as pharmaceutical manufacturers find ways to get farm animals to produce existing medicines at a cheaper cost than making them in the lab.

7. Obese, Mangy, Anxious, Tumor-Ridden Mice

Photo: Rick Eh?'s photostream

Over the course of many years, scientists have created all sorts of mice by “turning off”—or “knocking out,” to use the geneticists’ lexicon—one individual gene or another. By observing those “knock out mice,” scientists are often able to venture a guess as to what function a specific gene had. This is nothing new, but it has resulted in some fascinating insights recently about the genetic roots of cancer, anxiety, heart disease and, yes, why it is that some of us—both mice and humans—tend to get fat.

8. Neon Nemo

It’s now possible to take home your very own genetically engineered pet: the GloFish. Scientists originally engineered these small, fluorescent fish to glow whenever they encountered environmental pollutants in their habitats, but the commercial, just-for-fun pet version glows all the time. They’re available for purchase across the United States, but not in California.

9. Spare Part Pigs

It’s already fairly common to transplant pig heart valves into human patients, but recent scientific discoveries suggest it will soon be possible to transplant entire hearts—livers, kidneys and pancreases, too—from genetically modified pigs into human patients. These special “spare part pigs” have been designed so that the gene that would normally cause the human immune system to reject a foreign organ is out of service. Some ethicists have found this idea a little weird, but others have suggested that raising pigs for their organs is really no different than raising them for bacon.

10. Popeye the Pig

In 2002, a team of Japanese scientists from Kinki University became the first group to successfully add a functioning plant gene—a gene from spinach—to an animal. In this case, it was a pig. The resulting Spinach-Pig carried 20% less saturated fat in its carcass.

11. The Ear Mouse

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the most famous real-live Frankenstein Frankenstein's Monster of its day, the so-called Vacanti Mouse was created by scientists in Massachusetts in 1995 to grow what appeared to be a human ear on its back. The scientists were hoping to demonstrate that it was possible to get living creatures to grow cartilage structures that could then be used for transplants onto human patients. The Ear Mouse, which quickly became famous and was featured on the Jay Leno show, was used instead in the late ‘90s as a poster-mouse, so to speak, for groups opposed to genetically modifying animals.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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