Gregg Sloan via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Gregg Sloan via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Sewage Samples Could Be Used to Prevent the Next Viral Outbreak

Gregg Sloan via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Gregg Sloan via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Indoor plumbing is a beautiful thing. With a single flush, it transports all your nasty business to a far-off place where you never have to think about it again. But according to a group of researchers at MIT, we shouldn’t be writing off our waste so quickly. 

Sewage contains information about a population’s microbiomes that could be potentially life-saving. One stool sample can provide a look at a person’s genetic tendencies, potential illnesses, and overall health. Descending into the sewers to gather this data is not a pretty job, but thankfully the scientists at MIT’S Senseable City Lab are willing to take the plunge. 

The Underworlds project began at the start of this year with researchers donning biohazard suits and climbing through manholes to collect samples by hand. They’ve since developed a network of robots to do the dirty work for them. The automated samplers are stationed throughout the city in residential neighborhoods, industrial areas, and the Harvard and MIT campuses. Almost as soon as the information is gathered, it's transmitted back to MIT, where the Underworlds labs get to work analyzing it for biochemical information. 

To give you an idea of how this data could be useful: Just one sample they studied contained more than 58,000 viruses. By gathering this type of information on a large scale, cities would be better equipped to predict outbreaks of disease and detect new viral strains. Data on everything from deadly pandemics to the common flu could be used to inform policies makers, health practitioners, and researchers in the future. 

The information could also be used to map city demographics. If they find that a certain neighborhood has higher amounts of antibiotics in their sewage, for instance, they might assume it's home to a larger population of children and elderly people. While this could be used as a new way to survey a population, being able to trace the samples back to specific individuals is much less likely. 

It’s still too early to say what the full impact of Underworlds will be. The team is now expanding their operation to Kuwait, where the platform can be used to detect potential enterovirus outbreaks. For a stunning visualization of the Cambridge sewage–sourced data they've compiled so far, head over to Underworlds' webpage.

[h/t: City Lab]

The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

This Just In
What Do You Get the Person Who Has Everything? Perhaps a German Village for Less Than $150,000

Looking for a gift for the world traveler who has everything? If cost isn't an issue and they're longing for a quiet country home, Fortune reports that an entire village in East Germany is up for sale. The tiny hamlet of Alwine, in Germany's Brandenburg region, is going up for auction on Saturday, December 9. Opening bids begin at $147,230.

Alwine has around one dozen buildings and 20 full-time residents, most of them elderly. It was once owned by a neighboring coal plant, which shut down in 1991, soon after East Germany reunited with West Germany. Many residents left after that. Between 1990 and 2015, the regional population fell by 15 percent, according to The Local.


In 2000, a private investor purchased the decaying hamlet for just one Deutsche Mark (the currency used before the euro). But its decline continued, and now it's up for grabs once more—this time around, for a much-higher price.

Andreas Claus, the mayor of the district surrounding Alwine, wasn't informed of the village's sale until he heard about it in the news, according to The Local. While no local residents plan to purchase their hometown, Claus says he's open to fostering dialogue with the buyer, with hopes of eventually revitalizing the local community.

[h/t Fortune]


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