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These Flowers Change Color on Demand

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vimeo

In the future, your garden might change colors every day. That’s if a Colorado-based company can meet its goal of designing a petunia that goes from pink to blue and back again with the sun’s rhythms. 

“We’re gardeners and we thought, ‘A color-changing flower? That would be pretty sweet to have in the garden,’” says Keira Havens, the CEO of Revolution Bioengineering. She and her partner Nikolai Braun are raising money through an Indiegogo campaign to create a new kind of flower they’re calling “Petunia Circadia.”

“All plants have circadian rhythms like people and animals where they kind of follow the sun,” Havens says. In the “Petunia Circadia,” the flower’s pigment molecules will be linked to this daily rhythm, causing it to change colors every 12 hours or so entirely on its own. 

This sounds like science fiction, but it’s not far off. Havens and Braun have already engineered a petunia that goes from white to red on command when given a sip of beer. Why beer? The color change is activated by ethanol, and alcohol is a good source of this stuff. “It’s an easy molecule to use and it’s pretty ubiquitous,” Havens says. “The whole point was to make something everyone can use.” These beer-drinking flowers are a gift for backers of the Indiegogo campaign. A contribution of $42 gets you a single plant; additional contributions get you more. They’ll arrive white and, once given a drop of beer, turn red over 24 hours and remain that color for about a week, or until watered again with regular H2O. The catch? Shipping isn’t set to start until the spring of 2017.

These shade-shifting flowers are a poster-child for a larger mission: raising awareness about genetic engineering, and removing some of the stigma that comes with it. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are mired in controversy, which Havens says is hampering potentially valuable research. Case in point: She turned to Indiegogo for fundraising because no horticultural company wanted to be associated with the GMO drama. “There’s this unnecessary fear around GMOs,” she says. “There’s a lot of confusion about what the technology is and what it does and what it can do. You can use it to do whatever you want, so we wanna make beautiful things with it.” She says biotechnology could someday be used to create new smells for flowers, or polka-dotted petals. 

Revolution Bioengineering is working with British artist and designer Helen Storey to create a dress that incorporates the color-changing flowers that will be on display in London next summer. “It will be a commentary, and start a discussion on how what society does impacts nature and how nature can come back and inform society,” Havens says.  

The campaign sits at around $18,400 and has a long way to go to reach its $75,000 goal by April 9. 

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Space
Look Up! The Orionid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend
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Ethan Miller/Getty Images

October is always a great month for skywatching. If you missed the Draconids, the first meteor shower of the month, don't despair: the Orionids peak this weekend. It should be an especially stunning show this year, as the Moon will offer virtually no interference. If you've ever wanted to get into skywatching, this is your chance.

The Orionids is the second of two meteor showers caused by the debris field left by the comet Halley. (The other is the Eta Aquarids, which appear in May.) The showers are named for the constellation Orion, from which they seem to originate.

All the stars are lining up (so to speak) for this show. First, it's on the weekend, which means you can stay up late without feeling the burn at work the next day. Tonight, October 20, you'll be able to spot many meteors, and the shower peaks just after midnight tomorrow, October 21, leading into Sunday morning. Make a late-night picnic of the occasion, because it takes about an hour for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. Bring a blanket and a bottle of wine, lay out and take in the open skies, and let nature do the rest.

Second, the Moon, which was new only yesterday, is but a sliver in the evening sky, lacking the wattage to wash out the sky or conceal the faintest of meteors. If your skies are clear and light pollution low, this year you should be able to catch about 20 meteors an hour, which isn't a bad way to spend a date night.

If clouds interfere with your Orionids experience, don't fret. There will be two more meteor showers in November and the greatest of them all in December: the Geminids.

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science
11-Year-Old Creates a Better Way to Test for Lead in Water
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In the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, a Colorado middle schooler has invented a better way to test lead levels in water, as The Cut reports.

Gitanjali Rao, an 11-year-old seventh grader in Lone Tree, Colorado just won the 2017 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, taking home $25,000 for the water-quality testing device she invented, called Tethys.

Rao was inspired to create the device after watching Flint's water crisis unfold over the last few years. In 2014, after the city of Flint cut costs by switching water sources used for its tap water and failed to treat it properly, lead levels in the city's water skyrocketed. By 2015, researchers testing the water found that 40 percent of homes in the city had elevated lead levels in their water, and recommended the state declare Flint's water unsafe for drinking or cooking. In December of that year, the city declared a state of emergency. Researchers have found that the lead-poisoned water resulted in a "horrifyingly large" impact on fetal death rates as well as leading to a Legionnaires' disease outbreak that killed 12 people.

A close-up of the Tethys device

Rao's parents are engineers, and she watched them as they tried to test the lead in their own house, experiencing firsthand how complicated it could be. She spotted news of a cutting-edge technology for detecting hazardous substances on MIT's engineering department website (which she checks regularly just to see "if there's anything new," as ABC News reports) then set to work creating Tethys. The device works with carbon nanotube sensors to detect lead levels faster than other current techniques, sending the results to a smartphone app.

As one of 10 finalists for the Young Scientist Challenge, Rao spent the summer working with a 3M scientist to refine her device, then presented the prototype to a panel of judges from 3M and schools across the country.

The contamination crisis in Flint is still ongoing, and Rao's invention could have a significant impact. In March 2017, Flint officials cautioned that it could be as long as two more years until the city's tap water will be safe enough to drink without filtering. The state of Michigan now plans to replace water pipes leading to 18,000 households by 2020. Until then, residents using water filters could use a device like Tethys to make sure the water they're drinking is safe. Rao plans to put most of the $25,000 prize money back into her project with the hopes of making the device commercially available.

[h/t The Cut]

All images by Andy King, courtesy of the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge.

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