SciTech Now Episode 302

Epidemiologists in North Carolina track the evolution and geographic spread of Zika; CNET’s Ben Fox Rubin discusses how refugees in Greece are using mobile phones, apps and social media; Science Friday shares insights about the mysterious octopus; and a special place in San Antonio, Texas where teens might not have access to technology and the internet can explore the digital world.

TRANSCRIPT

Coming up -- tracking Zika virus...

So what we want to look at is the evolution of disease, the evolution of the pathogens themselves.

And so, using evolutionary biology techniques and genetics, we can see how pathogens are moving over space, time, different host organisms.

...tech and the refugee crisis...

In any particular country, they would be able to use their smartphones to access information to find food or shelter or maybe even work.

...living like an octopus...

They can see planes of polarized light, so their perception of the world would be fundamentally different from ours.

They are still able to generate color patterns on their body that are a good match to the background.

...and, finally, a special center for teens and tech.

This is a way to connect our youth that are in... that may have never even been able to access the Internet.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...

Hello. I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Welcome to 'SciTech Now,' our weekly program brining you the latest breakthroughs in science, technology, and innovation.

Let's get started.

With the global spread of Zika, epidemiologists in North Carolina are tracking the evolution and geographic spread of the virus from when it was first identified in 1947 to today.

Here's the story.

Scientists have confirmed the Zika virus is spread through bites from mosquitos of the species.

It's the same mosquito that spreads dengue fever.

But just how does a mosquito bite create a worldwide epidemic?

Most of what epidemiology was doing is looking at the occurrence of disease, and so what we want to look at is the evolution of disease, the evolution of the pathogens themselves, the bugs themselves.

And so, using evolutionary biology techniques and genetics, we can connect all those cases and see how pathogens are moving over space, time, different host organisms.

Dr. Daniel Janies threw a lot of computing power behind that question and created an eye-opening view of the worldwide spread of a disease.

Okay.

So, here, it's spreading throughout Africa, all right?

Zika was first identified in the Zika Forest in Uganda in 1947.

It's considered a mild disease in Africa.

And the virus stayed in Africa for almost 20 years.

And then it moves to Malaysia, and, going forward to about 2007, it spread to Yap in Micronesia.

And going forward from there, 2013, it spread to French Polynesia.

And now we're seeing, in 2014, 2015, it's spreading through the Caribbean, South America, and Central and Mexico and North America.

And what's happened as it crossed the Pacific is it's mutated a little bit.

Those genetic mutations provided valuable insights to the team at UNC Charlotte, who have placed interactive tracking of the Zika virus at the world's fingertips.

It's much like, you know, projectors projecting an image on the screen, and that gives us both the evolutionary context, the time context, the host context, the mutation context, and the geo context all in one.

The red dots on the map are key.

They represent a sample of the virus taken from a patient.

That blood sample is used to sequence the virus' DNA.

Researchers contacted governments, hospitals, and private labs all over the world to gather the information.

The result shows that not only how the Zika virus spreads, but also its family tree.

I may try to call those labs and ask them, 'Do you guys have those samples in your freezer?'

And if they say yes, then we're like, 'Okay, would you be willing to collaborate with us so we can do sequencing for you guys on those sequences, work together, and gather sequence and understand to do a forecast?'

And that helps the public health, of course.

The team hopes its maps will help in understanding how the virus spreads and changes.

Mosquitos don't travel far, but in a world in which people move about, it doesn't have to for the virus to spread.

A mosquito bites an infected patient.

The Zika symptoms are flu-like -- aches, pains, and fever.

They last about seven days.

The mosquito bites the infected patient... [ ] ...then flies and bites a person who doesn't have the virus.

[ ] That spreads the illness.

What's amazing to me is that that transit across the Pacific, that's a virus that relies on mosquitos -- which are flying across the Pacific -- relying on people flying across the Pacific or otherwise, you know, taking a ship and infecting the local mosquito population, infecting other people on the island, and somebody's unlucky enough to go to the next island.

Researchers theorize that the virus mutates as it spreads and it's those mutations that are linked to the birth defects Zika is believed to cause.

So, what is the relationship, then, between, say, this and this and that over there in -- Haiti I think it is?

Yes.

So, they are sisters that share a common parent, and that parent has other parents and so forth.

Researchers even added a feature to the map to show the relationships between strains of the Zika virus.

So, here, you've got in West Africa two sisters with a common ancestor.

And what the particle guide helps us visualize is the flow of information down from the deep ancestry of the virus, down to the surface of the earth where the actual viruses are happening.

Bottom line -- while the Zika virus, now linked to a surge in birth defects in Central and South America, was first identified in Africa roughly 60 years ago, it is not the same virus.

It has mutated.

We really like to show translation over geographical space.

It really kind of helps get an understanding of how the diseases flow.

These viruses were isolated out of patients not long ago.

We're putting it all in a context, and it's very much akin to, like, you turning on the 6:00 news and seeing a weather map of storms coming across the middle of the country to North Carolina.

Here, we're seeing a virus moving across the world, potentially affecting North Carolina.

♪♪

Last year, more than a million migrants and refugees fled places like Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, searching for safe places to settle.

As part of a new series called 'Life, Disrupted,' the CNET News team traveled to Greece to see how mobile phones, apps, social media, and other technologies are part of this global story.

Joining me now is CNET senior writer Ben Fox Rubin.

First of all, this is a human crisis on a scale that most of us have not witnessed before.

You guys are a site that covers primarily tech in all of its different incarnations.

Why go here and look at the tech angle of this?

To me especially, what was important to look at regarding this is, is that CNET more often that not, I guess, is looked at for reviews or what's the latest feature that's coming to your iPhone.

However, technology has really embedded itself into so many aspects of people's lives, and so it was fascinating to me to really see how technology affects people in this very critical, very important way, relating to the refugee crisis.

What were the things that they were using most often?

The smartphones.

So people would either bring their smartphone -- Refugees, migrants would bring their smartphones either from home or they would buy them when they came to Europe or they would buy them right before they actually went on their trips, and they would use them for any number of things.

They would use them to connect to other refugees.

There would be different travel groups, and they would be able to connect to people all over Europe to just share information.

In any particular country, they would be able to use their smartphones to access information to find food or shelter or maybe even work -- different things like that.

And one of the other aspects that I actually thought was really interesting was you could really store so many of your memories from videos and photos in your phone.

And so a lot of interviews that I had would sometimes end with somebody pulling out their smartphone and showing me pictures of what their life was like back home, you know, and they would have a different haircut.

They wouldn't be wearing secondhand clothing that was donated to them and, more often than not, that they would have a smile on their face, and this was a great way to just remember, you know, 'I used to have a life, and now things are different.'

And so it was this really interesting way of connecting people in a variety of ways just through this one device.

And it's a trunkful of memories inside a phone, which also makes it an incredibly valuable object.

It's interesting that you say that because, people that I bumped into in New York, more often than not, you're gonna see somebody with a cracked smartphone -- you know, the cracked phone screen, whatever.

I don't think I bumped into a single refugee that had a cracked phone screen because -- My interpretation of that is that they guard them so closely -- they realize that this is really their lifeline, their connection, to so many different things, whether it be information or connecting to family members that are in a different country or just, you know, accessing news or a mobile game or something when you're bored.

So I definitely agree, and, you know, obviously, every single place that we went to, too, you would always find people crowded around chargers, as well, because you need to make sure that it stays powered on.

And the chargers, it was almost like an old-fashioned well, with these tiny, almost --

We called them a water cooler, yeah, yeah.

It's like the charging stations are the new water coolers, basically, so, yeah, and that's where people would connect and share information and different things like that.

There's a little bit of almost an 'Underground Railroad,' I imagine, where they're getting information from the people who've gone on ahead of them.

It's being relayed back.

'Oh, well, I just heard from so and so.

He's into this next country now.'

And they say 'X' about this particular route.

It was fascinating how fast that was getting back because everyone had different social networks and the charging stations where those networks meshed.

Yeah, most of the time, they would use either WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger, but that's exactly right.

That's exactly what I had heard, is that information would just spread very, very quickly.

I talked to one Greek official who said they have all these problems in the country -- they have all these refugees that they can't house, they have an economic crisis going on in Greece, but one of the only problems that they don't have is the ability for information to spread.

And so it's important to note, though, that sometimes that's a good thing and sometimes that's a bad thing.

Sometimes, a rumor will spread really, really quickly, and so this is one of those aspects where technology might not actually help.

It might actually hamper, where the wrong information will then spread like wildfire, and that could also be problematic.

You showed in your series the camps that were setting up in different parts of Greece to Wi-Fi networks in Calais.

You guys went kind of up and down the spectrum.

But what are the problems that tech solve?

I think that there are some realities on the ground.

There just aren't enough helping hands.

There isn't enough money.

There aren't enough aid groups.

There are too many people that need help, and a lot of their problems are very multifaceted -- you know, either families have been separated and they need to be reintegrated.

There are also a lot of people with psychological problems, that they've just experienced a lot of difficulty on their way to getting to Europe in the first place.

I mean, an app isn't gonna solve that.

A smartphone does help in a lot of different ways, but, at the same time, it doesn't fill in every gap.

And so one of the aspects that I thought technology helped the most was in organizing grassroots organizations and in also helping refugees organize and share information.

But it wasn't this silver bullet.

It wasn't something that solved everything at all.

You know, there's still an enormous amount of need despite all the technology available.

It's great to see that this is what the end product of what Silicon Valley generates, can do, but, on the other hand, there's still so much that it do.

It is worth mentioning that technology really did serve -- The fact that so many refugees had smartphones, it did serve as this leveler.

There are a lot of people that were basically fishes out of water.

This is the first time that they're in any given country, they don't speak the language, and being able to access information and share information among refugees is really critical, and it's very vital.

And I think that that does make things a lot easier and much more seamless for them to integrate into these areas, but it doesn't solve everything.

Ben Fox Rubin of CNET.

Thanks for joining us.

Thank you.

♪♪ [ Keyboard clacking ]

Can you imagine having taste buds on your feet?

Octopuses depend on taste buds in their suction cups to determine whether foreign objects are edible.

Up next, Science Friday takes us inside the lab with Frank Grasso of Brooklyn College to share some insights about these curious creatures.

♪♪ ♪♪

How does an individual organism experience the world?

Maybe I can never really know what it means to be an octopus, but I am a firm believer in the idea that, if I think well enough, I use my imagination, and I'm critical enough about the evidence, that I can arrive at a reasonable approximation.

♪♪ I'm Frank W. Grasso, and I am a professor of psychology at Brooklyn College, at the City University of New York.

is a wonderful, wonderful concept that I'm very fond of, and it's a German word that means like 'the world around us.'

Octopus, their senses are dominated by vision and by touch and by taste, and they have a little bit of chemical sense.

How those atoms of sensation are organized into perceptions in the animal is the A large part of their nervous system is devoted to manipulating objects under the guidance of their touch-taste system.

And by the way, the octopus arm has roughly 300 suckers apiece.

Each one of those has on the order of 10,000 sensory neurons.

There are mechanical sensors.

So they could actually not only discriminate textures but shapes with their suckers.

Their chemical sensors, they provide a sense of taste.

Imagine walking across a floor with bare feet, and you're tasting the surfaces as you walk along.

Psychologically, for humans, that's kind of repugnant, but, for an octopus, I think that's probably what gets their juices flowing, so to speak.

There is a lot of 'intelligence' in the arm.

What we found with our collaborators at Hebrew University in Jerusalem -- there is this kind of reflex that the sucker produces when it makes contact, sort of like, 'Suck first, ask questions later.'

And then that gives it time to be able to form a chemical impression of whether or not this is a thing to be rejected or accepted.

Fish it would attach to.

Food items and so forth -- it makes good sense to attach very, very quickly to a food item so it doesn't get away.

Neutral surfaces it would attach to.

A fast-flowing current or tidal situation -- you want to attach so you're not carried away.

Other octopuses it would attach to with a slightly lower affinity.

But it would not reflexively attach to its own tissue.

There must be a specialized set of receptors for self-recognition in the rim of the suckers.

The octopus needs to have that kind of recognition because the risk of self-entanglement is an important one.

I don't know that the octopus' brain has access to that information of self.

It could be a completely local sense, that this reflex is simply suppressed.

The other part, I would say, is the visual part.

They really only have one visual pigment.

So, we have three -- red, green, and blue.

Octopus won't be able to see those.

They be able to sense the same wavelengths as we are, but they wouldn't organize them in the same way.

But the octopus can in fact tell what orientation the light is in.

They can see planes of polarized light, so their perception of the world would be fundamentally different from ours.

And the amazing thing about this is that they are still able to generate color patterns on their body that are a good match to the background.

And, really, nobody knows how their brain's doing this.

It's one of these amazing tricks that we need to figure out.

In the ancient theories of neuroscience, there's this idea called the homunculus -- the little man inside the head that's viewing a screen of all the sensory information and is pushing the buttons.

In the case of an octopus, the brain of an octopus resides just behind the eyes.

It is a very elaborate structure that moves around the octopus' esophagus.

Whenever the animal swallows something, the brain's gonna get stretched to allow that item of food to pass through the esophagus, so who knows what's happening in terms of a sensation inside of the brain?

Pardon the pun, but I can't resist -- it does take a 'stretch' of the imagination.

But then three fifths of its brain is located in the animal's arms and a complex network of cells which interconnects the arms.

So, who's in control?

The octopus is in control of its body.

Whether or not it's the brain behind the eyes or the brain inside of the arms or a union, a sort of republic of reflexes between the two of them, that's an open scientific question.

There are oceans of things still to be learned, and while we have these islands in the oceans of certainty that are rock-solid from really good research, the whole picture isn't even an outline yet.

They truly are the closest thing we have to aliens on this planet in terms of the way their brains are organized and work.

♪♪

Hello. How y'all doing?

The students of Amy Scott's second-grade class, as well as do a presentation.

I was very excited.

We're always happy to have donations from community members, and the Collins brothers have been amazing to work with.

A big part of what we do -- we talk about soil science.

The plants actually have a process called 'phytoremediation,' where they'll take toxins from the air and build their own tissue out of it.

So anything that could be, say, coming from paint is going to disappear out of the air and, also, is gonna give you oxygen, which is essential, especially for young children.

They think it's so cool to know that the plants in our classroom have been cleaning their air.

I've noticed that my students have gained such a greater sense of responsibility.

They take care of their plants.

They water their plants on their own.

Even their grades have improved a bit, and they love just having the plants in the classroom.

...that we had grown off of a large mother at our house.

It's helping them learn and engage more in the classroom and just be more active students.

Just like your brain grows... the plant will grow if you read to it.

So the main focus is trying to teach them all about nature and how it works, in hopes that we can take care of the planet.

So if we can teach them how to properly take care of soil, we're gonna have soil for generations to come.

And that's really the only way you're gonna learn how to properly take care of a plant.

In San Antonio, Texas, there's a special place where teenagers who otherwise might not have access to technology and the Internet can explore the digital world.

Here's the story.

This is the Best Buy Teen Tech Center in San Antonio, Texas.

And here, we help students explore what their gifts are in a safe space with mentors and resources in a community of other fellow students from throughout San Antonio to help find what their gifts are.

Here, we're connecting youth to the world of technology.

You know, San Antonio is becoming like a cyber Mecca in the United States for technology, and this is a way to connect our youth that are in... that may have never even been able to access the Internet, and being able to connect them with not only other places in the city of San Antonio and Bexar County, but, also, other parts of the state, their colleagues in other states, and in other countries.

And there are students from all different types of schools from every part of San Antonio that come here that never would've had the chance to meet otherwise.

And so it's a very unique place that young people have a chance to meet.

My name is Victor Sandate.

I attend John F. Kennedy High School.

I'm a senior, and I come here to the Best Buy Teen Tech Center to do graphic design.

There's a lot of graphic design, there's a lot of video, there's a lot of photography, there's lot of arts and crafts.

There's lots of hardware and computer work that goes on.

Everything that happens in between all of that, it's them really trying to solve some type of a problem it is that they have or just go and find some sort of exploration that they've been inspired to do.

The Best Buy Teen Tech Center has affected me by guiding me to a career that I'd like.

When I first started, I didn't know I liked photography.

And now I want to be a photographer.

I want to go to college, study photography, and hopefully, one day, own my own studio.

You can go to the best schools, have the best education, you can have the best teachers -- you can learn everything, but no one can teach you how to love what you do.

And the worst thing that you can do whenever you go into higher education is to waste time on things that you aren't passionate about.

And so using a place like the Best Buy Teen Tech Center as a place to find out what your gifts are, that saves you valuable time in life that you can spend being happy and really good at what you do.

And even if it's not your main career choice, you still have far more skills.

That makes you far more marketable.

That makes you able to do much more in higher education and in your career.

The Teen Tech Center is really like a place that someone could call a second home.

Everybody here is like -- they want to be here.

It's not that they're forced to be here, so they have a different attitude towards the place.

So everybody comes in, and we just all get together and do what we do.

We do what we love.

We're very open, and we invite and would really encourage people that are interested in this program or any of our services to come in.

We have lots of opportunity for volunteers to come in, for people to mentor, people to do special projects and that sort of thing.

So Best Buy's been awesome, the creators have been awesome, and the doors are open to others, as well.

♪♪

And that wraps it up for this time.

For more on science, technology, and innovation, visit our website, check us out on Facebook and Instagram, and join the conversation on Twitter.

You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

Funding for this program is made possible by... ♪♪