Futurist Update: Evolving the Ability to Evolve

Jay Owen Trendspotting


December 2013 • Volume 14, No. 12

In this issue:

·        Evolving the Ability to Evolve

·        The Data-Driven Car

·        Self-Healing Electrodes Could Enable Super-Long-Lasting Electric Batteries

·        What’s Hot in THE FUTURIST Magazine

Evolving the Ability to Evolve

Some traits tend to evolve more than others, but can organisms evolve evolvabilityitself? A recent study from the University of Pennsylvania confirms scientists’ suspicions that they can.

When bacteria infect a host, the host’s immune system often catches on and develops a resistance to the invasive organisms. When this happens, bacteria must develop a different way to attack their host.

“Pathogens face a very strong selection pressure from the host’s immune system,” says Dustin Brisson, a University of Pennsylvania biology professor and the paper’s lead author. “If they don’t adapt, they will die.”

Lyme disease bacteria, Borrelia burgdorferi, rely on a specific protein to infect their hosts. When the host’s immune system develops a resistance to B. burgdorferi, the bacteria’s DNA responds. A gene cassette—a string of usually inactive DNA—begins working to modify the protein-producing VIsE gene to create a protein that the immune system doesn’t recognize. The bacteria can then continue infecting their host.

The cassettes don’t have a purpose on their own; they are useful only when VIsE is insufficient. The researchers decided that the best way to determine if the cassettes had evolved for evolvability was to examine the cassettes’ diversity. They looked at 12 strains of B. burgdorferi and found that the more diverse a bacterium’s cassettes, the more diverse the protein produced and the greater the organism’s chance for survival. They also discovered that cassette mutations occurred much more often than they would if left up to chance.

Brisson explains, “The evidence was remarkably strong in favor of evolution for more diversity among cassettes and thus greater evolvability in the expressed protein.”

That doesn’t mean that evolvability applies to all, or even most, organisms. “But we can now say that evolvability can be the object of selection in the face of environmental pressure,” Brisson concludes. —Keturah Hetrick

Source: “Natural Selection Promotes Antigenic Evolvability,” PLOS (November 14, 2013).

The Data-Driven Car

A new electric vehicle under development at Ohio State University has no engine, no transmission, and four wheels that operate independently of each other, each using its own battery-powered motor. Such a vehicle could be both extremely agile and energy efficient, but impossible for a human to control safely. Enter the algorithm.

The car itself is not self-driving; rather, the driver’s actions to control the vehicle are coordinated by an onboard computer system in the model developed by Junmin Wang, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Ohio State University, and his team. The research is funded by the National Science Foundation.

Using feedback from the driver as he or she moves the steering wheel or steps on the accelerator or the brakes, the computer calculates the necessary torque for each wheel and coordinates the wheels’ actions. And the system thinks fast, receiving and analyzing the driver’s feedback 100 times per second to generate the wheel-controlling math.

The algorithm-driven vehicle could potentially be ideal for city drivers as its reliability is improved; it produces no emissions, and its electrical systems could be sourced from wind, solar, or other non-fossil fuels. Wang estimates another five to 10 years of development before the system reaches commercial viability. —Cynthia G. Wagner

Source: National Science Foundation

WorldFuture 2014 Conference

The Annual Conference of the World Future Society
July 11-13, 2014 * Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek
Orlando, Florida, U.S.A.

Register before December 31 and save $250!

WorldFuture 2014 will offer interactive and participatory activities, fascinating speakers on cutting-edge topics, and a luxurious resort setting.

Confirmed Speakers Include:

·        Futurist Paul Saffo, co-founder and managing director of Foresight at DISCERN, consulting associate professor at Stanford University, visiting scholar at Stanford Media-X.

·        Hazel Henderson, economist, syndicated columnist, consultant on sustainable development, and author of Beyond Globalization and several other books.

·        Nanotechnology pioneer Raj Bawa.

·        Arnulfo Valdivia, director of the Institute for Mexicans Abroad.

·        Karen Moloney, a Chartered Psychologist, consultant, writer and speaker, and the founder and director of Moloney Minds.

·        Delos Smith is working on new initiatives by the dyslexic community that connect brain and cognitive development research, early childhood evaluation and development, and education system reforms.

·        Gil Meyer, director of Global Issues Management & Trend Analysis, DuPont Company. He has been with DuPont for 26 years, serving in a wide range of public affairs and regulatory affairs roles. His current assignment includes nanotechnology issues management, recall preparedness, chemicals risk management, synthetic biology, crisis preparedness, and pandemic planning.

Important Submissions deadlines are fast approaching!

Apply to the Susan Echard Student Scholarship Program by March 31st. If your application is chosen you could save $150 on your registration.

Submit an essay to the conference-edition of World Future Review by January 14.

View tentative event schedule.

Self-Healing Electrodes Could Enable Super-Long-Lasting Electric Batteries

Living things repair themselves when they suffer injuries and run-of-the-mill wear and tear. Batteries may soon do the same. Researchers from Stanford University and colleagues have developed a battery electrode that appears capable of “healing itself.” The researchers say that this technology could be a major boost for production of new lithium-ion batteries for electric cars and consumer electronics.

Lithium-ion batteries’ silicon electrodes regularly crack and fall apart after repeated charges and discharges. The batteries’ performance declines as a result. But when the electrodes are coated with a special polymer that binds and heals tiny cracks, they could last 10 times as long, according to the researchers. The polymer-coated electrodes worked for 100 charge-discharge cycles without showing any significant declines in storage capacity.

Leading the research at Stanford University were chemical engineering professor Zhenan Bao and Yi Cui, associate professor at SLAC. The results were reported in the November 19 issue of Nature Chemistry.

Chao Wang, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford, developed the polymer in Bao’s lab, which had been working on a flexible electronic skin for robots, sensors, and prosthetic limbs. Wang took this skin and added tiny nanoparticles of carbon to make the polymer. The researchers plan to test the polymer on other materials besides silicon and hope to improve its performance and longevity. —Rick Docksai

Source: Stanford UniversityNature Chemistry.

Special Announcement

Are You the Next CEO of the World Future Society?

The World Future Society ignites the exchange of ideas about the future and offers members an opportunity to connect with others to create better futures for themselves and for the world. The Society has served this purpose since its founding on October 28, 1966. The Society’s recent efforts in this area have been led by its president, Timothy Mack. After an impressive 10 years of leadership and service to the Society and its members, Tim has announced his intention to retire next summer. The Society is now looking for a new CEO to lead the Society as it pursues its mission in the years to come.

An extraordinary purpose requires an extraordinary leader. The new CEO will be someone drawn from a pool of highly diverse candidates who can represent the Society externally with intelligence, energy, and enthusiasm. Internally, the new CEO will provide the fresh eyes, compelling vision, strategic thinking, and enlightened leadership to advance the Society’s purpose in ways that may be invisible today. This person will join the Society’s staff around June 1, 2014, and will take over as CEO on July 14, 2014, immediately following the 2014 conference.

This leaves just one question: Is this person you?

Read Timothy Mack’s farewell announcement here

Learn more about the qualifications for this individual here.

What’s Hot in THE FUTURIST Magazine

Outlook 2014

Species long extinct may one day be revived. Doctors will detect signs of brain disorders many years before symptoms emerge. And consumers will give up owning stuff in order to lighten the loads of their lifestyles. These are just a few of the most thought-provoking possibilities and ideas published in THE FUTURIST magazine over the past year. Read more.

Also check out The Futurist Magazine’s Top Ten Forecasts for 2014 and Beyond

Connecting with Our Connected World

By Richard Yonck

We can only really communicate with a tiny fraction of our personal and global environment. But our world and our experience of it are poised to change dramatically as everything becomes increasingly interconnected. Here’s what we can expect in the coming era of the “Internet of Things.” Read more.

Securing the Cyber City of the Future

By Indu B. Singh and Joseph N. Pelton

Our urban infrastructure is now under constant threat of cyberattack and a growing range of disasters—both natural and man-made. Our privacy is under threat from overzealous response. Real places and city services are vulnerable to hackers, but we can protect our water, power, transportation, and other vital systems. Read more.

The End of Public Promises? Governments and the Pension Deficit Disorder

By Rob Bencini

Generous public employee retirement benefits and other vestiges of the past are severely straining state and local government budgets. In order to survive, the public sector may have to learn how to operate in an era that doesn’t promise eternal growth. Read more.

Game Plan for a Future-Ready Workforce

An Interview with Ed Gordon by Rick Docksai

The author of Future Jobs discusses the book’s mission to upgrade education systems and to connect skilled workers with new job prospects. Read more.

Future View: Evolution or Extinction? Humanity’s Future Legacy

By Jan Taylor

With our growing ability to impact life on this planet, for better and for worse, we must consider more deeply the unanticipated consequences of our technological choices, a zoologist warns. Read more.

World Trends & Forecasts

·        Adaptation Is Job One Businesses need to prepare for the impacts of extreme weather and disruptive climate change. By Joerg Schrottke, Sandra Niewiem, Thomas Weber, and Wiebke Hoffmann

·        Smarter Software’s Impacts on Human Privacy When computers figure out what you’re saying, will they care? Will you?

·        A Requiem for Lost FuturesWe grieve for unattainable futures just as we grieve for unalterable pasts.

·        A Madding Crowd’s Ignoble StrifeGrowing human populations may drive more animal species toward extinction.

And MANY more stories.

Join today!