SciTech Now Episode 310

In this episode of SciTech Now, scientists are discovering ways to use 3D printed tissue in organ transplants; Joey Stein has invented a device to communicate with fireflies; Professor of Philosophy Shannon Vallor discusses the ethical issues behind driverless cars; and how officials, scientists, and politicians are working together to fight the Zika virus in Florida.


Coming up... 3-D printers may be the next generation of organ donors...

Because it's your own cells, the risk of rejecting is almost nonexistent.

And your body heals a lot faster because you're providing it with all the raw ingredients to fix the problem.

A tool that lets you talk to fireflies...

If you start to become more of an advanced firefly communicator, and you want to try out other species or look for other things that you're seeing -- you see something in the field that doesn't look like what you're doing -- then you can reprogram it to have different codes.

The driverless car dilemma.

There are gonna have to be decisions made about whether people down the road will be sanctioned for choosing to drive their own cars when, at some point, that's going to put other people at greater risk.

And finally, fighting back against Zika.

When we do hear about risks in other areas, we're very quick to learn about things that are going on and what's working to control.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...

Hello. I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

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

Let's get started.

3-D printers have become very popular for home and industrial use.

But can you imagine them printing human organs?

This leap in medical technology may not be that far off thanks to biomedical engineers at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Up next, we take you inside the lab.

The 3-D printer is actually a Bioplotter.

So what's unique about this one is that it is capable of printing living cells within the material as you print it.

We've all heard about 3-D printing.

You can probably get them at Home Depot these days.

We're not looking into printing the organs themselves.

We're looking into printing housing or scaffolds for cells to come in and then repopulate and remake the tissue that is lacking in there.

So all of our research is currently focused on coming up with materials that the body will accept easily, that can work as 'inks' to carry the patients' cells into these printed tissues that we would make for the patient.

So, let me paint you a picture.

So, let's say you come in with a automobile accident.

Or let's say our veterans come back with a gunshot wound or a land-mine injury or something like that.

And you're missing a big chunk of muscle and bone.

You kind of go into surgery.

The doctor would clean the wound.

They'd take some of your own fat cells, and most of us are usually very happy donating our fat, especially for a good cause of healing yourself, and take these cells, print them using the inks that we are researching and manufacturing.

And then, the piece of muscle that's printed out with your cells and a Jello-like material would go back into your body.

Because it's your own cells, the risk of rejecting is almost nonexistent.

And your body heals a lot faster because you're providing it with all the raw ingredients to fix the problem.

So within, like, a 4-to-5-hour procedure, you would print out the custom tissue for a patient and put it back into that person.

Take all the science.

Take all the knowledge that we're acquiring here and trying to develop and eventually bring it on to the patient, which will be the ultimate beneficiary of this.

I like using cooking metaphors.

So if you're kind of, like, baking a cake, we're making the batter.

The cells are the chocolate chips.

And you just add them to the batter.

So a lot of our motivation in using this Bioplotter is driven by the local military community in San Antonio.

We work very closely with the U.S. Army and the U.S. Surgical Research.

And if there's, let's say, veterans with gunshot wounds or something like that through the face, and a big piece of their jaw's been blown out, they pretty much have a CT scan.

And from the CT scan, we can reconstruct what their jaw looks like and then print a material to the shape of the jaw.

The patient's own cells would be loaded onto it.

And it would be put back into the body.

Now this would potentially disappear over 2 to 3 years and be replaced by the patient's own native bone.

So you're not stuck with a piece of metal that's holding your jaw together.

And you're kind of... We're using the body to regenerate itself as much as possible.

We're just providing the raw ingredients to make that easier.

Maybe, in the future, you can get to the point where you need to print or create your custom organ for the person who actually needs it using some of the same cells from the person without rejection.

There are approximately 2,000 known species of fireflies.

And each species flashes its own unique code.

Interactive designer and nature enthusiast Joey Stein worked with evolutionary biologists to develop the Firefly Communicator.

So a Firefly Communicator, it looks like something you hang off your key chain.

What does it do?

Well, this relatively simple device allows you to communicate with fireflies and bring them right to you.

And when you say communicate with, this is because fireflies are, what, constantly looking for these signals when they're in mating season?


And the communication signals actually, from fireflies, have been misunderstood by people for centuries.

For the most part, fireflies communicate for two reasons -- one, to find a mate and the other to warn potential predators that they are toxic and not good to eat.

This device actually allows you to communicate with them when they're searching for a mate.

How do we know that they can discern what code is their species and what's not?

And how do we know so much about them?

Scientists have been studying that very thing for quite a while now.

There are some very interesting things about how they evolved to flash and how they differentiated with their species based on their flash.

They began as an aposematic signal, just like wasps and bees with a yellow and black stripe.

It's a warning to predators that they have a powerful sting.

And in case of fireflies, that they're toxic.

So all firefly species, their larvae and their eggs glow.

Not all firefly adults actually flash.

Scientists know that there is, there is some point in time in history in evolution where the fireflies start flashing to find each other.

And that, they suspect, happened when the advent of flowering plants occurred.


And lots of flying predators, including flying insects and birds, came on the scene.

And the fireflies got pushed to the margins.

So they had to start communicating at night.

And so that was the big challenge is how do they actually find a mate?

So they started to flash in order to find a mate.

So how does this work?

Do you just generate small signals with little lights?


So scientists in the field, they use a light just like this.

Fireflies all emit light in a wide variety of wavelengths, greens and blues and whites.

All are sensitive to and works with.

And what the scientists do is they would just press a button like that...


...and get an LED flash to go.

And one of the scientists I'm working with, Frederick Wenzel, he studies the way that the fireflies flash in the field and has taken his best guesses and figured out, cracked these codes.

If I walked into Central Park right now and if I saw a firefly, how do I figure out whether I could generate the right kind of light code to lure that firefly?

So the small button here is what I call the code button.

And this button plays back a code that is based on a known species.

Or you can actually design your own code for this and be like a scientist and try and crack a new code for a new species.

Each one of these is programmed with the most common species in North America.

And that allows you to go out into your backyard and have some success.

This device works with a phone.

So you can actually make your selection if you start to become more of an advanced firefly communicator, and you want to try out other species or look for other things that you're seeing -- you see something in the field that doesn't look like what you're doing -- then you can reprogram it to have different codes.

What does the app do?

So the app, it allows you to select, to find a firefly based on the color or flash type or the region that you're in.

So you're likely to find the right species for your...

You can narrow down the species.

You narrow it down.


Okay, so I kind of know that this looks like it's a yellowish one or a darker brown one.

And I know that I'm in North America.

I know I'm in the northeast.

You got it.

And then so now we're going from 2,000 down to 1,000 down to 400 down to 15.

Yeah, or even less, right, because that's the big problem.

It's not like a bird app where you're like, 'I want to look at a blue jay,' where you already find that signal.

It's much easier for people to know that.

But these patterns are not ones that -- or these species names aren't familiar.

So here, too, you can also create a custom pattern.

So this equips you with a lot of, all the signaling parameters that you would want to create your own signal.

And then once you're satisfied with this -- for example, this one, we have emitting a green signal.

So if I were to take this same signal, and I can make it now amber.

What was it like the first time you walked around with a biologist and saw that they could lure a firefly with a particular light?

It's thrilling because it's not anything like I expected.

You get different behaviors from the fireflies when you're communicating with them in this way.. When you are out catching the fireflies, they will emit a signal.

But a lot of times, that's a signal trying to remind you to not eat them, not destroy them, not touch them.

But when you actually use this device, you get this moment where, especially males will come in.

And they'll dim their signal because they don't want to advertise to other males that there's a female there that they've found.

And they'll come around.

And they'll basically be courting you.

And they'll move around the device.

A lot of times, they'll actually land on the device, which is thrilling.

And then you can pull it right up to you.

It's like not catching a firefly.

All right.

Joey Stein, thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you.

With rapid advancements in transportation technology, studies estimate that at least 380 million semi- or fully autonomous vehicles will occupy roads by 2030.

While driverless cars are projected to increase efficiency and reduce traffic, they also raise important ethical questions.

Reporter Andrea Vasquez discussed some of these questions in a Google hangout with Shannon Vallor, professor of philosophy at Santa Clara University.

Shannon Vallor, thank you for joining us.

Happy to be here.

So we're looking at self-driving cars.

We're seeing these in our definite future.

But there's some ethical issues involved.

One way that people look at this is through something called the trolley problem.

Can you explain what that is?


So the trolley problem is an old philosophical thought experiment that just used to be used in courses on ethics and moral philosophy as a test of our moral intuitions.

And the way it usually went is some variation of the following.

You're driving a trolley down a track.

There are a number of people trapped in a vehicle or somehow or maybe tied to the tracks by some nefarious person.

And the trolley's going to kill those people.

But the driver of the trolley has the option of diverting the trolley onto another track where, perhaps, there is only one person in the way.

Perhaps there's a worker on the tracks that will be killed.

And the question is, 'What's the right thing to do?

Should you actively cause the death of the one worker by diverting the trolley or allow, let's say, five people to be killed by the trolley on its present track?'

And the idea is it seems like both have some problems.

In the one case, you're actively causing someone to die.

In the other case, you're allowing more people to die, when you could prevent those deaths and cause only one death.

The reason why this has captured people's moral imaginations in the case of driverless cars is that there are some scenarios that seem to come up that might present similar difficulties for programmers of driverless vehicles because, unlike drivers now, who have to make split-second decisions that we don't expect them to do a lot of careful moral calculation in those scenarios, these cars are going to be able to anticipate those kinds of scenarios.

Programmers are going to have to be able to tell cars, in advance, how to handle difficult situations, for example, one where, let's say that there is a school bus trapped in a tunnel.

And your car is hurtling towards the tunnel.

It detects the fact that there's a school bus, which is presumably full of lots of children, that it is likely to rear-end unless it veers off the road.

But let's say that there's an almost certainty that, if the car veers off the road, it's going to kill you, the occupant.

Let's say that there's a cliff that the car cannot avoid going over if it veers from the lane.

Let's assume that perhaps it'll have to crash into the tunnel wall.

So here's a question.

What should the car do?

Should it rear-end the school bus, which might cause the deaths of a number of innocent children?

Or should it sacrifice you?

Presumably one is better than many.

But on the other hand, it's your car.

I've spent the money.

I want to survive the crash.

And then there are worries about the programmers actively causing the car to put it's occupant at risk versus accepting the risks that are already on the road that the programmers themselves have not chosen.

So you can see how the trolley problem kind of gets re-created here.

Do the programmers have to anticipate every possible scenario?

Or do these cars have the potential to learn?

Many of these cars, now, have self-learning algorithms that are able to be trained to generalize from past driving experience to new situations so that just like a driver might encounter a situation on the road that they have never encountered before and, from past experience, make an educated guess about what the right thing to do would be, we now have self-learning, artificial neural networks in cars that are being trained to make the same kinds of educated guesses in new driving situations.

And in the programming of these, prior to that self-learning, those decisions that they're making, those premeditated decisions in those scenarios, does that become a company-by-company standard?

Does that become and industry regulation?

How do we navigate that?

That's all up in the air right now.

And that's something that automakers are talking about, legislators are talking about, industry, professional associations for computer scientists and software engineers are talking about this because we don't know.

Right now, each self-driving technology is being developed more or less independently from the others.

And negotiations with municipalities and regulators is really happening separately.

But the conversations are beginning to come together.

And there have already been a number of efforts to get people who are interested in this technology in the same room to talk about standards because down the road, you're going to need those standards.

You're going to need a common understanding of what driverless cars can and cannot do on the road, a common understanding of what protocols will exist for cars to communicate with one another so that they can identify other driverless cars on the road and perhaps coordinate action with them.

There's gonna have to be decisions about how insurance is gonna work, how liability for injuries or deaths caused by driverless cars is going to be addressed.

There are going to have to be decisions made about whether people down the road will be sanctioned for choosing to drive their own cars when, at some point, that's going to put other people at greater risk.

The whole reason for this technology is that humans, by and large, are not great drivers.

We drive distracted.

We drive drunk.

We drive tired.

And people die as a result.

And so the whole goal of this technology is to remove that human risk by allowing automated systems to do the work for us.

And this isn't the only place where new tech innovations are creating questions that we didn't know to ask before, ethical questions.

And are we learning anything from these conversations that are starting to happen, about how to navigate this cross-section of human ethics and technical and artificial intelligence?


I mean, I think we are just at the beginning of those conversations.

But I'm very much encouraged by the enthusiasm, not just within university researchers and research communities but also from industry and government, the growing understanding that we need to have conversations about the ethics of emerging technologies.

And AI and automation is one of the biggest ones.

Now, what we will learn from them and how much that will really affect design, implementation of artificial intelligence and similar technologies, that remains to be seen.

But we're heading in a good direction.

Shannon Vallor, thanks again for joining us.

Thank you.

Scientists in Orlando, Florida, are fighting back against Zika.

We go into the field and into the lab, where researchers are working towards stopping the virus in its tracks.

Here's the story.

Before 2015, few people had ever heard of the Zika virus.

Then, news broke of an epidemic in Central and South America.

In the vast majority of cases, infection is asymptomatic or brings mild flu-like symptoms.

But in the unborn babies of pregnant women, it can cause a severe birth defect called microcephaly.

In adults, infection occasionally leads to serious complications and even death.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that by early 2017, nearly a million people in Puerto Rico will be infected.

Cases have started showing up in Florida.

And experts believe they can multiply rapidly.

In central Florida, efforts are underway to reduce the risk.. The virus is spread by mosquitoes.

So one way of fighting Zika is mosquito control.

Right here is almost subtropical.

Right here is some of the same weather that's in the Caribbean.

The weather is warm almost all year long.

The mosquitoes got a great chance to breed right here, faster than in northern states.

Amador Rodriguez is searching for two species of non-native mosquitoes known to carry Zika.

We're looking for water sources.

The water sources, that's where the mosquitoes gonna breed.

That's where the mosquitoes gonna lay their eggs.

That's where they're gonna incubate and hatch.

The main concern is try to get the people safe.

The mosquito will lay the eggs there.

When our field inspectors are out looking for sources, they are looking for any little thing possible that can hold water enough to breed mosquitoes.

Inspectors collect mosquito larvae and bring them to this Orlando lab to be analyzed.

The mosquito female, after it's taken a blood meal, it develops its eggs.

And it can lay up to 200 eggs per batch.

And those mosquito eggs have to dry out for 12 to 24 hours.

And then once they get wet, they hatch into little larvae.

And the larvae have four parts to their life cycle.

It just takes about 5 days to go through that larval life cycle.

And then they're off and flying.

Officials use data on where the larvae were collected to determine where to spray, being careful not to target harmless local species of mosquitoes that form an important part of the ecosystem.

They are pollinators.

And they're part of the food chain.

There's lots of things that eat them as larvae.

Fish eat them. Frogs eat them.

Some other aquatic organisms eat them.

But as adults flying around, there's lots of birds that eat them, bats.

There's just quite a few things that will eat them.

But some researchers believe sprays are ineffective against the two species that spread Zika.

These mosquitoes don't swarm at night, when spraying usually takes place.

Female mosquitoes are the only mosquitoes that bite.

Florida International University neurogeneticist Matthew DeGennaro regularly meets members of the public to answer questions about Zika.

I'm trying to get pregnant this year, not the best time, obviously.

He and other experts believe genetically modifying mosquitoes might be more effective than spraying.

One way is to release male mosquitoes, which don't bite, that will species-specifically find Aedes aegypti female and render her functionally sterile and unable to reproduce.

And so we can achieve population reduction through this mechanism.

And it has been done in the Caribbean.

It's been tried in Brazil.

And I think that it's a lot better than spraying, which affects so many different insects What we need to focus on is reducing just the Aedes aegypti and albopictus possibly, as well, their populations.

Another approach is to modify the DNA in mosquitoes to react differently to smells such as a human odor.

The first step is to figure out which receptors in the mosquito's brain cause it to be attracted to humans.

And then we can try to find a chemical to hijack those receptors.

And then we can cause the mosquito to be like, 'Oh, my God. Yuck. Stay away.'

So it would almost be like a designer perfume that is designed to annoy mosquitoes.

We think that understanding how a repellant works will help us design the next generation of repellents.

But techniques like these are likely years from being practical.

Meanwhile, officials on the ground know they have to try many options.

Especially with these two species, we cannot spray our way out of this because they're so elusive.

And they're hard to control, their habitats.

And there's little bits of water all over the place.

When we do hear about risks in other areas, we're very quick to learn about things that are going on and what's working to control.

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...