* It could revolutionize rescue of people trapped in burning buildings, or after earthquakes.
* Plus: “Is this really the tree of life?” scientists ask of a 2,000-year-old seed from Masada which has grown to a 4-foot-tall seedling yielding a now-extinct species of date that was renowned in ancient times as a treatment for heart disease, chest problems, weakened memory and possibly even cancer.
1. Israeli company develops system to see through walls
2. 2,000-year-old seed grows to 4-foot-tall Judean date palm, and is set to bear fruit
3. Wonder bugs eat waste, then excrete crude oil
4. “Israeli company develops radar that sees through walls” (Ha’aretz, June 12, 2008)
5. “2,000-year-old seed set to bear fruit” (Jerusalem Post, June 13, 2008)
6. “Date palm seed from Masada is the oldest to germinate” (LA Times, June 13, 2008)
7. “Scientists find bugs that eat waste and excrete petrol” (London Times, June 14, 2008)
[Note by Tom Gross]
You need not have a particular interest in science to appreciate the potentially revolutionary impact for us all of the discoveries outlined in the four articles below. I have prepared summaries first for those that don’t have time to read them in full.
ISRAELI COMPANY DEVELOPS SYSTEM TO SEE THROUGH WALLS
Israel scientists have already invented technology that led to the development of everything from the iPhone to digital television sets. Now Ha’aretz reveals (in the first article below) that Camero, one of hundreds of world-class Israeli high-tech companies, has developed a unique radar system, using special algorithms, that can process data picked up by a detector to give a reasonable image of anything behind a wall. The system made by its competitor, Time Domain, lacks imaging algorithms, and is able to reveal only whether or not there is some object or person on the other side of a wall.
There is some anger in Israel that Ha’aretz has made public details of the discovery, which many Israelis had hoped could give Israel the military edge in rescuing Israeli captives, such as Gilad Shalit who has been held hostage for almost two years in a cellar in Gaza.
Besides being put to military use, the new technology is aimed at helping rescue people in disaster situations, for example to locate people trapped in burning buildings, or for search-and-rescue in earthquake-ravaged areas.
2,000-YEAR-OLD SEED GROWS TO 4-FOOT-TALL JUDEAN DATE PALM, AND IS SET TO BEAR FRUIT
In the second article below, The Jerusalem Post reports that a 2,000-year-old date seed discovered at Masada (in southern Israel) four decades ago may provide new cures to numerous ailments, after making significant advances, against all odds, in producing fruit from the seed.
Having been germinated by an Israeli team more than three years ago, and kept alive since, the “Judean date” sapling appears likely (but not certain) to yield a now-extinct species of date that was renowned in ancient times as a treatment for heart disease, chest problems, the spitting of blood, weakened memory and other medical conditions, possibly even symptoms of cancer and depression.
The Judean Dead Sea region was famous for its extensive and high-quality date culturing in the first century. High summer temperatures and low precipitation at Masada contributed to the seed’s exceptional longevity.
The Hadassah University Medical Center revealed the findings in the prestigious journal Science.
In the third article below, on the same subject, The Los Angeles Times adds that the seed has grown into a healthy, 4-foot-tall seedling, surpassing the previous record for the oldest seed ever to be germinated – a 1,300-year-old Chinese lotus.
WONDER BUGS EAT WASTE, THEN EXCRETE CRUDE OIL
In the fourth article below, The Times (of London), reports on genetically altered bacteria designed to provide “renewable petroleum.” In other words, scientists have found bugs that eat waste and excrete petrol.
Although the scientists in this case were in Silicon Valley, not Israel, such a development could of course have a revolutionary impact on Middle Eastern politics were the West to reduce its heavy dependence on Arab oil.
As The Times notes, companies in or near Silicon Valley are spurning traditional high-tech activities such as software and networking and have embarked instead on an extraordinary race to make $140-a-barrel oil from Saudi Arabia obsolete.
-- Tom Gross
ISRAELI COMPANY DEVELOPS SYSTEM THAT SEES THROUGH WALLS
Israeli company develops radar system that sees through walls
By Guy Grimland
Ha’aretz (Technology section)
June 12, 2008
It’s not easy to locate Camero’s offices in the Kfar Neter industrial zone, but it may have just gotten easier. The startup has developed a system that allows users to see through walls.
It sounds just like a comic book fantasy come true - after all, who hasn’t dreamt of getting to peek into the boss’s office or the spouse’s doings in the other room? Not so fast, budding Poirots: Camero’s product is designed not for the entertainment of our inner child, but for use primarily in military and search and rescue operations.
And such technology could indeed be beneficial for special unit soldiers, for instance, or for locating people trapped in burning buildings.
“The idea of seeing through walls has been around since the 1960s, but modern technology is now ripe enough to enable it to happen,” explains Camero’s technology director, Amir Beeri. “When we established the company in 2004, we intended to develop sufficiently high vision resolution to allow an untrained user to see through a wall.”
Camero’s unique radar utilizes Ultra Wide Band (UWB), a technology that has only come of age in recent years, and with the use of special algorithms can process data picked up by the detector to give a reasonable image of anything behind that wall. Lacking imaging algorithms, the system made by its competitor, Time Domain is able to reveal only whether there is someone on the other side of the wall.
Although the first version developed by Camero, the Xaver 800, which includes a 82cm by 82cm screen on a tripod and weighs about 10 kg, making the system too clumsy for use in battle conditions, the Xaver 400 and Xaver 300 are both lighter weight and smaller sized, meant for use as a quick-to-use tactical tool.
The systems are capable of penetrating various types of walls, but not solid metal ones, like the walls of shipping containers.
Camero CEO Aharon Aharon says that the company has already sold the system to various armies and police forces around the world, and is optimistic about the future of the technology.
“Like the Israeli army’s night vision system, which was once an expensive product and eventually came into broad, general use, we hope that our radar too will become standard issue for all military units,” Aharon said.
2,000-YEAR-OLD SEED SET TO BEAR FRUIT
2,000-year-old seed set to bear fruit in three years
By Judy Siegel-Itzkovich
The Jerusalem Post
June 13, 2008
A 2,000-year-old date seed discovered at Masada four decades ago may provide new cures to numerous ailments, Israeli scientists say, after making significant advances, against all odds, in producing fruit from the seed.
Having been germinated, astoundingly, by an Israeli team more than three years ago, and kept alive since, the “Judean date” sapling appears likely (but not certain) to yield a now-extinct species of date that was renowned in ancient times as a treatment for heart disease, chest problems, the spitting of blood, weakened memory and other medical conditions, possibly even symptoms of cancer and depression.
The seed was discovered during the 1960s archaeological excavations of Masada by Prof. Yigael Yadin, an eminent Israeli archeologist, political leader and the second IDF chief of General Staff.
The Judean Dead Sea region was famous for its extensive and high-quality date culturing in the first century CE. High summer temperatures and low precipitation at Masada contributed to the seed’s exceptional longevity.
The plant’s current location is being kept secret because of its great scientific and financial value. It could produce fruit at the age of seven years, according to Dr. Sarah Sallon, a physician and director of Hadassah University Medical Center’s Louis Borick Natural Medicine Research Center (NMRC) in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem.
She heads the team that succeeded in planting, germinating and growing the date seed and describes its findings and hopes for it in the Friday issue of the prestigious journal Science.
The date project is part of the NMRC’s Middle Eastern Medicinal Plant project aimed at conserving, developing and researching the rich legacy of medicinal plants in Israel. The extinct “Judean date” is regarded by NMRC as having particular importance.
The ancient seed in Sallon’s experiment was procured from Bar-Ilan University, and germination was handled by Dr. Elaine Soloway, an expert on desert agriculture at the Arava Institute of the Environment at Kibbutz Ketura, in the Arava valley.
When the seedling was 15 months old, direct radio-carbon dating on shell fragments performed by Dr. Egli of Zurich University showed an age compatible with the Roman siege of Masada almost 2,000 years ago, thus making it the oldest seed ever to be germinated.
Early genetic analysis of the seedling - performed by Dr. Yuval Cohen of the Volcani Institute at Beit Dagan - shows differences from modern cultivated date species.
Further analysis is planned in the hope of discovering particular genetic characteristics that made the Judean dates famous both as a prized source of food and as a valuable medicine, Sallon told The Jerusalem Post.
“Our next stage will be to grow more dates, in the hope of better understanding their genetics and possibly breeding the ancient date as a modern one,” she continued.
“We need to reintroduce ancient crops and plants that once flourished in this region and to investigate them scientifically for their properties. As much as Hadassah is involved in the most modern medical technologies, it also promotes our desire to discover new cures for diseases out of ancient sources.”
THE OLDEST SEED EVER TO GERMINATE
Date palm seed from Masada is the oldest to germinate.
The seed is found to be 2,000 years old. Planted three years ago, it has produced a healthy tree.
By Wendy Hansen
The Los Angeles Times
June 13, 2008
Scientists using radiocarbon dating have confirmed that an ancient Judean date palm seed among those found in the ruins of Masada in present-day Israel and planted three years ago is 2,000 years old – the oldest seed ever to germinate.
The seed has grown into a healthy, 4-foot-tall seedling, surpassing the previous record for oldest germinated seed – a 1,300-year-old Chinese lotus, researchers reported Thursday in the journal Science.
The tree has been named Methuselah after the oldest person in the Bible. It is the only living Judean date palm, the last link to the vast date palm forests that once shaded and nourished the region.
Sarah Sallon, who directs the Louis L. Borick Natural Medicine Research Center in Jerusalem, became interested in the ancient date palm as a possible source of medicines. She enlisted Dr. Elaine Solowey of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura to coax the seeds out of dormancy.
One sprouted. Scientists estimated that it was about 2,000 years old based on carbon dating of other seeds found at the site, but they had no way of directly testing the planted seed without risking its chance of germinating.
After the Methuselah seed germinated, Solowey found fragments of the seed shell clinging to the roots – enough for dating.
The shell fragments initially dated to AD 295, give or take 50 years, but a small percentage of “modern” carbon incorporated as the seed germinated made it appear 250 to 300 years younger. Correcting for this factor, the researchers reported that the seed dates from 60 BC to AD 95, similar to the other seeds from the site.
That placed the seed at Masada a few years after the Roman siege there in 73, when, according to the ancient historian Josephus, nearly 1,000 Jewish Zealots in the Masada fortress committed mass suicide rather than capitulate to the Romans. They burned most of their food stores, leaving a single cache to show that they did not starve to death.
“These people were eating these dates up on the mountain and looking down at the Roman camp, knowing that they were going to die soon, and spitting out the pits,” Sallon said. “Maybe here is one of those pits.”
Archaeologists excavating the ancient fortress of Masada unearthed the seeds in 1965, and they sat in storage for four decades before being planted.
The seeds probably survived for so long because of the extremely arid conditions of the Masada mesa, said Cary Fowler, seed preservation expert and executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which maintains the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway.
Preliminary comparison of Methuselah’s DNA with modern date palms shows a 20% to 50% difference from current varieties, differences which may include lost traits for resistance to pests and diseases.
Sallon and her colleagues hope to cultivate more ancient date seeds and eventually reintroduce the Judean date palm to the area. “It should be there because that’s where it belongs,” she said.
They also plan to test the tree for the medicinal properties hinted at in historical writings.
“Is it really the tree of life?” Sallon asked. That question won’t be answered until around 2010, when Methuselah – if female – may bear fruit.
GENETICALLY ALTERED BACTERIA DESIGNED TO PROVIDE “RENEWABLE PETROLEUM.”
Scientists find bugs that eat waste and excrete petrol
Silicon Valley is experimenting with bacteria that have been genetically altered to provide ‘renewable petroleum’
The Times (of London)
June 14, 2008
“Ten years ago I could never have imagined I’d be doing this,” says Greg Pal, 33, a former software executive, as he squints into the late afternoon Californian sun. “I mean, this is essentially agriculture, right? But the people I talk to – especially the ones coming out of business school – this is the one hot area everyone wants to get into.”
He means bugs. To be more precise: the genetic alteration of bugs – very, very small ones – so that when they feed on agricultural waste such as woodchips or wheat straw, they do something extraordinary. They excrete crude oil.
Unbelievably, this is not science fiction. Mr Pal holds up a small beaker of bug excretion that could, theoretically, be poured into the tank of the giant Lexus SUV next to us. Not that Mr Pal is willing to risk it just yet. He gives it a month before the first vehicle is filled up on what he calls “renewable petroleum”. After that, he grins, “it’s a brave new world”.
Mr Pal is a senior director of LS9, one of several companies in or near Silicon Valley that have spurned traditional high-tech activities such as software and networking and embarked instead on an extraordinary race to make $140-a-barrel oil (£70) from Saudi Arabia obsolete. “All of us here – everyone in this company and in this industry, are aware of the urgency,” Mr Pal says.
What is most remarkable about what they are doing is that instead of trying to reengineer the global economy – as is required, for example, for the use of hydrogen fuel – they are trying to make a product that is interchangeable with oil. The company claims that this “Oil 2.0” will not only be renewable but also carbon negative – meaning that the carbon it emits will be less than that sucked from the atmosphere by the raw materials from which it is made.
LS9 has already convinced one oil industry veteran of its plan: Bob Walsh, 50, who now serves as the firm’s president after a 26-year career at Shell, most recently running European supply operations in London. “How many times in your life do you get the opportunity to grow a multi-billion-dollar company?” he asks. It is a bold statement from a man who works in a glorified cubicle in a San Francisco industrial estate for a company that describes itself as being “prerevenue”.
Inside LS9’s cluttered laboratory – funded by $20 million of start-up capital from investors including Vinod Khosla, the Indian-American entrepreneur who co-founded Sun Micro-systems – Mr Pal explains that LS9’s bugs are single-cell organisms, each a fraction of a billionth the size of an ant. They start out as industrial yeast or nonpathogenic strains of E. coli, but LS9 modifies them by custom-de-signing their DNA. “Five to seven years ago, that process would have taken months and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he says. “Now it can take weeks and cost maybe $20,000.”
Because crude oil (which can be refined into other products, such as petroleum or jet fuel) is only a few molecular stages removed from the fatty acids normally excreted by yeast or E. coli during fermentation, it does not take much fiddling to get the desired result.
For fermentation to take place you need raw material, or feedstock, as it is known in the biofuels industry. Anything will do as long as it can be broken down into sugars, with the byproduct ideally burnt to produce electricity to run the plant.
The company is not interested in using corn as feedstock, given the much-publicised problems created by using food crops for fuel, such as the tortilla inflation that recently caused food riots in Mexico City. Instead, different types of agricultural waste will be used according to whatever makes sense for the local climate and economy: wheat straw in California, for example, or woodchips in the South.
Using genetically modified bugs for fermentation is essentially the same as using natural bacteria to produce ethanol, although the energy-intensive final process of distillation is virtually eliminated because the bugs excrete a substance that is almost pump-ready.
The closest that LS9 has come to mass production is a 1,000-litre fermenting machine, which looks like a large stainless-steel jar, next to a wardrobe-sized computer connected by a tangle of cables and tubes. It has not yet been plugged in. The machine produces the equivalent of one barrel a week and takes up 40 sq ft of floor space.
However, to substitute America’s weekly oil consumption of 143 million barrels, you would need a facility that covered about 205 square miles, an area roughly the size of Chicago.
That is the main problem: although LS9 can produce its bug fuel in laboratory beakers, it has no idea whether it will be able produce the same results on a nationwide or even global scale.
“Our plan is to have a demonstration-scale plant operational by 2010 and, in parallel, we’ll be working on the design and construction of a commercial-scale facility to open in 2011,” says Mr Pal, adding that if LS9 used Brazilian sugar cane as its feedstock, its fuel would probably cost about $50 a barrel.
Are Americans ready to be putting genetically modified bug excretion in their cars? “It’s not the same as with food,” Mr Pal says. “We’re putting these bacteria in a very isolated container: their entire universe is in that tank. When we’re done with them, they’re destroyed.”
Besides, he says, there is greater good being served. “I have two children, and climate change is something that they are going to face. The energy crisis is something that they are going to face. We have a collective responsibility to do this.”
* Google has set up an initiative to develop electricity from cheap renewable energy sources.
* Craig Venter, who mapped the human genome, has created a company to create hydrogen and ethanol from genetically engineered bugs.
* The US Energy and Agriculture Departments said in 2005 that there was land available to produce enough biomass (nonedible plant parts) to replace 30 per cent of current liquid transport fuels.