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Category Archives: Genetic Engineering

FDA, USDA combat consumer opposition to GMOs | 2020-03-09 – Food Business News

Posted: March 10, 2020 at 11:42 pm

WASHINGTON The US Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Department of Agriculture launched a $7.5 million consumer education initiative focused on highlighting the science behind genetically modified organisms.

The goal of the effort, called Feed Your Mind, is to answer the most common questions consumers have about GMOs, including how they are regulated and whether they are safe and healthy.

Less than a dozen genetically modified crops are grown in the United States, but they often make up an overwhelming majority of the crop grown. More than 90% of soybeans, corn and sugar beets planted in 2018 were genetically modified.

Genetic engineering has created new plants that are resistant to insects and diseases, led to products with improved nutritional profiles, as well as certain produce that dont brown or bruise as easily, said Stephen M. Hahn, MD, commissioner of the FDA.

One educational video from the FDA points out that genetically modified soybeans have healthier oils that may be used to replace oils that contain trans fats. Other materials highlight how reduced bruising and browning may help combat food waste.

Consumers, however, remain uncertain. Concerns that GMOs are unhealthy and harmful are widespread. The number of shoppers avoiding GMOs tripled over the past decade, according to The Hartman Group. Close to half of consumers surveyed last year said they avoid bioengineered ingredients, compared to 15% in 2007.

A study published last year in Nature Human Behavior found more than 90% of participants had some level of opposition to GMO foods. It also found that consumers with the strongest opposition to GMO foods thought they were more knowledgeable about the topic than other participants, despite scoring lower on an actual knowledge test.

While foods from genetically engineered plants have been available to consumers since the early 1990s and are a common part of todays food supply, there are a lot of misconceptions about them, Dr. Hahn said. This initiative is intended to help people better understand what these products are and how they are made.

The Feed Your Mind initiative will launch in phases. Materials already released include a new website, fact sheets, infographics and videos. Supplementary science curriculum for high schools, resources for health professionals and additional consumer materials will be released later this year and in 2021.

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$100 Genome Sequencing Will Yield a Treasure Trove of Genetic Data – Singularity Hub

Posted: at 11:42 pm

What would the implications be if decoding your genes cost less than a pair of designer jeans? We might soon find out after a Chinese company claimed it can sequence the human genome for $100.

The speed at which the price of genetic sequencing has fallen has been astonishing, from $50,000 a decade ago to roughly $600 today. For a long time, the industry saw the $1,000 genome as the inflection point at which we would enter the genomic agewhere getting a read out of your DNA would be within reach for huge swathes of the population.

That milestone has come and gone, but progress hasnt stopped. And now Chinese firm BGI says it has created a system that can sequence a full genome for just $100. If the claims hold up, thats a roughly six times improvement over state-of-the-art technology.

The key to the breakthrough is a significant increase in the size of the chip that is used to analyze genetic data, so twice as many genomes can be processed at once. Their machine also uses a robotic arm to dunk the chip into baths of the chemicals used to carry out the sequencing process, which allows them to be reused multiple times.

The company says the system, which will be made available to customers late this year, is aimed at large-scale genomics projects and could make it possible to decode the DNA of 100,000 people a year.

The breakthrough could spur further price falls as well by breaking the stranglehold that industry leader Illumina has had on the market. Dennis Grishin, co-founder of startup Nebula Genomics, told MIT Tech Review that he believed the reason the price of genetic sequencing had remained stuck around $1,000 in recent years was due to Illuminas near monopoly.

A $100 genome could significantly broaden the scope of what we can do with genetic data. The growing field of population genetics promises to uncover the genetic quirks that set different groups of people apart, which can prove vital for developing new medicines and understanding the susceptibility of different groups to certain conditions.

While some ambitious projects, such as the UK Biobank project aimed at collating genetic data on 500,000 people, are already underway, the cost of sequencing has so far limited the scope of these projects. A dramatically cheaper system could see these kinds of initiatives become far more commonplace, greatly expanding our understanding of genetic diversity among humans.

By bringing the cost of full genome sequencing within reach of everyday people, the approach could also dramatically expand the scope of personalized medicine. While services like 23andMe have seen a huge expansion in consumer genetic testing, these services only decode a small fraction of the genome that isnt particularly useful for medical purposes.

DNA sequencing is already used to tailor cancer treatment by determining how peoples genetics are likely to influence their response to certain treatments, but it is still far from standard practice. At $100 the practice could become far more common and also be expanded to predict responses to a host of other treatments, ushering in a new era of personalized medicine.

Theres also hope that it would enable new tests that could provide early warning of susceptibility to a host of genetic diseases, or even sequence the DNA of patients microbiomes to detect imbalances in their gut flora that might be responsible for certain conditions or impact their responses to certain treatments.

Rade Drmanac, chief scientific officer of Complete Genomics, a division of BGI, told MIT Tech Review that at $100 it could soon be common to sequence the DNA of every child at birth. This could provide unprecedented early-warning for a host of diseases, but would also open up a Pandoras box of ethical concerns.

The movie Gattaca already explored the potential for discrimination when genetic testing becomes trivially easy, particularly when paired with increasingly powerful genetic engineering that is bringing the potential for designer babies ever closer.

Perhaps more importantly though, our understanding of how our genetics impact our lives is still very hazy. While we have identified some genes that strongly influence propensity for certain diseases, most human characteristics are governed by complex interactions between multiple genes whose activity can vary throughout our lives in response to environmental pressures.

Our ability to read our DNA is far ahead of our ability to understand it, which could lead to all sorts of problemsfrom creating a new class of worried well flagged as at risk of certain conditions that never come to be, to unnecessarily medicalizing or stigmatizing patients in ways that alter the trajectories of their lives.

With a $100 genome now within reach, we will have to tackle these issues with urgency to make sure the genomic age is one to look forward to rather than one to fear.

Image Credit: Pete Linforth from Pixabay

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How children can learn to balance science and religion – The Conversation UK

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It sometimes feels like society is permanently at loggerheads, divided over any number of issues, from genetic engineering and vaccines to euthanasia and religion, and unable to engage in productive exchanges across ideological divides.

Consequently, if education is to develop the next generation, it must nurture children as future citizens with the capacity to have productive conversations across these barriers of opinion and discipline.

We are often faced with big questions. But beyond the eternal questions concerning how life came into being and its purpose, there are more immediate concerns about which there will need to be decisions from citizens and leaders both now and in the future. How should we respond to climate change? Should government be allowed to quarantine people to prevent the spread of disease? Should euthanasia of terminally ill children be allowed?

Responses to questions such as these can be informed by science, as well as by ethics, philosophy and religion. But how can we generate a well reasoned argument using a range of diverse and often contradictory sources? And how can we develop childrens ability to do so, too? Children, after all, are the future.

First, children need to explore what an argument is, and what a good argument looks like within the subject they are studying. Put simply, an argument is a claim or set of claims supported by evidence and reasons, while a good argument is one justified by strong reasons and evidence that are relevant to the claim. But how do these arguments differ when it comes to the study of science and religious education (RE) in school?

The teaching and learning of arguments in science subjects has been extensively researched over the past 20 years. Academic textbooks and practical resources for teaching have been produced to support it.

But while RE curriculum documents often cite the need for students to produce well reasoned arguments, there has been far less research on and fewer resources for the teaching and learning of arguments within the subject.

One distinguishing feature between arguments in different subject areas is what is considered to be an acceptable reason. In the case of arguments in RE, what counts as a reason can be less defined and evidence-based than in the sciences, particularly when the focus may be on providing a safe space for expressing beliefs and respecting diversity, rather than on constructing persuasive arguments.

So what can be done about this and how can we ensure that children studying the two subject areas can better argue with one another? The Oxford Argumentation in Religion and Science (OARS) project brings the expertise of working science and RE teachers together, in collaboration with academic researchers. The project is exploring potential approaches for cross-curricular work across these disciplines, producing resources to support the teaching and learning of argument and reasoning in schools.

Our project team suggests that there are at least three good reasons to engage in cross-curricular teaching of argument and reasoning.

First, the subject groups can learn useful lessons from each other. Science teachers can draw on the skills of RE teachers for whom discussion, debate and dialogue are core features of their curriculum and daily work. RE teachers, on the other hand, could benefit by drawing on the well established resources and structure for teaching scientific arguments. They may also draw upon science teachers expertise when exploring scientific ideas and worldviews in RE.

Second, for the range of issues that might draw on both scientific and religious arguments for example, abortion, end-of-life decisions, evolution cross-curricular teaching could help develop a students capacity to discern the difference between those based on scientific evidence and those based more on faith and belief. It could also further their ability to accept and learn from other worldviews.

Finally, this work could extend across the whole school curriculum and bring greater coherence between school subjects. Learning about arguments in different subjects can make clear what is distinctive about each subject area (for example, highlighting the features of scientific arguments that make them distinctly scientific, as compared to other subjects). It can also highlight what features of arguments are common across specialities, showing how different subjects across the curriculum are related.

There is no single way that this cross-curricular collaboration could be rolled out in schools. Indeed, our participating teachers are innovative in finding approaches that work within the bounds of their busy, and often different, school lives.

In one example, an RE teacher and a science teacher are exploring the same question in their separate subject lessons: Why should we act on climate change? Students are asked to construct arguments using information that they have been learning in each subject, before combining these separate arguments from religion and science to present a convincing and coherent answer that draws on both disciplines.

We do not have all the answers and our work is ongoing. But we are convinced of the importance of learning how to argue and how to engage with others arguments for the sake of better scientific literacy, better religious literacy, and to create better citizens. Ultimately, it is about having productive discussions about what often appear to be unbridgeable divides and unanswerable dilemmas and to bring people together in the process.

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Nebraska team links wild wheat gene to drought tolerence in cultivated wheat – York News-Times

Posted: at 11:42 pm

LINCOLN New research from the University of NebraskaLincoln has led to the discovery of a novel gene that improves drought adaptation in wheat a breakthrough that could contribute to increased world food security.

In new research published in Plant Biotechnology Journal, Harkamal Walia, associate professor and Heuermann Chair of Agronomy and Horticulture at Nebraska, and colleagues describe a novel form of a gene obtained from wild wheat that has the potential to improve drought tolerance in cultivated wheat. Introducing this gene into cultivated wheat improved the plant root structure so that it continued to grow in search of water under dry soil conditions.

Wheat is the most widely grown crop in the world and, together with rice, provides more than 50% of the caloric intake of humans globally. Like other crops, wheat is exposed to a wide range of environmental limitations, such as high temperature, disease pressure and drought.

The scavenging nature of wheat root systems during times of drought may have been lost when wild wheats were adopted for agriculture by early humans or as cultivated wheat was bred for improved responsiveness to irrigation and fertilizers during the mid-1900s. This improved responsiveness was key to feeding a booming world population during the 1960s.

As todays producers strive for more crop per drop to feed a world population that is again in the midst of a boom and is expected to grow from about 7.5 billion today to more than 9.6 billion by 2050, it is evident that future crops will need greater drought resilience. The discovery by Walia and his colleagues could represent an important new genetic resource, enabling breeders to recapture this natural survival trait in cultivated wheat. The University of NebraskaLincoln has secured a patent on the discovery via NUtech Ventures, enabling future commercialization of this technology.

The potential impact of the discovery grew substantially when the team found that adding the wild root gene also resulted in plants with larger grains in the absence of drought. Walia and his team were not expecting this, as introducing tolerance to a stress can sometimes result in lost productivity when the stress is absent.

This particular trait may have the opposite effect, which is a benefit in both conditions, Walia said. We are now working to understand the reason behind this surprising finding.

The genetic engineering of wheat plants was performed at Nebraskas Center for Biotechnology.

Walia is one of many researchers worldwide helping to develop a catalog of genes that will contribute to creating more robust plants for the future. Drought response is a complicated trait, Walia said, which involves many genes contributing to survival and productivity when water is limited. He hopes that research in this area will continue to discover new genetic resources that plant breeders and geneticists can use to develop more drought-tolerant crops.

From a genetic improvement perspective, it takes a community to make a crop more adaptive, Walia said. This finding is one piece of a very large puzzle.

The research was spearheaded by doctoral students Dante Placido and Jaspreet Sandhu in the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture. The work was supported by the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources and the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute.

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FDA, EPA and USDA launch GMO education initiative – New Food

Posted: at 11:42 pm

The initiative aims to educate consumers about GMOs, including their production processes, their health information and other safety-related questions.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), in collaboration with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), have launched a new initiative to help consumers better understand foods created through genetic engineering, commonly called GMOs or genetically modified organisms.

The initiative, Feed Your Mind, aims to answer the most common questions that consumers have about GMOs, including what GMOs are, how and why they are made, how they are regulated and to address health and safety questions that consumers may have about these products.

While foods from genetically engineered plants have been available to consumers since the early 1990s and are a common part of todays food supply, there are a lot of misconceptions about them, said FDA Commissioner, Stephen M. Hahn, M.D. This initiative is intended to help people better understand what these products are and how they are made. Genetic engineering has created new plants that are resistant to insects and diseases, led to products with improved nutritional profiles, as well as certain produce that dont brown or bruise as easily.

Farmers and ranchers are committed to producing foods in ways that meet or exceed consumer expectations for freshness, nutritional content, safety, sustainability and more. I look forward to partnering with FDA and EPA to ensure that consumers understand the value of tools like genetic engineering in meeting those expectations, said Greg Ibach, Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at USDA.

As EPA celebrates its 50th anniversary, we are proud to partner with FDA and USDA to push agricultural innovation forward so that Americans can continue to enjoy a protected environment and a safe, abundant and affordable food supply, said EPA Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention Assistant Administrator, Alexandra Dapolito Dunn.

The Feed Your Mind GMO initiative is launching in phases. The current materials released include a new website, as well as a selection of fact sheets, infographics and videos. Additional materials including a supplementary science curriculum for schools, resources for health professionals and additional consumer materials will be released later in 2020 and 2021.

To guide development of the Feed Your Mind initiative, the three government agencies formed a steering committee and several working groups consisting of agency leaders and subject matter experts; sought input from stakeholders through two public meetings; opened a docket to receive public comments; examined the latest science and research related to consumer understanding of genetically engineered foods; and conducted extensive formative research. Funding for Feed Your Mind was provided by Congress in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2017 as the Agricultural Biotechnology Education and Outreach Initiative.

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Cell Therapy Insights Report, 2018-2028: Markets, Technologies, Ethics, Regulations, Companies & Academic Institutions – Benzinga

Posted: at 11:42 pm

Dublin, March 10, 2020 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- The "Cell Therapy - Technologies, Markets and Companies" report from Jain PharmaBiotech has been added to's offering.

The cell-based markets was analyzed for 2018, and projected to 2028. The markets are analyzed according to therapeutic categories, technologies and geographical areas. The largest expansion will be in diseases of the central nervous system, cancer and cardiovascular disorders. Skin and soft tissue repair as well as diabetes mellitus will be other major markets.

The number of companies involved in cell therapy has increased remarkably during the past few years. More than 500 companies have been identified to be involved in cell therapy and 309 of these are profiled in part II of the report along with tabulation of 302 alliances. Of these companies, 170 are involved in stem cells.

Profiles of 72 academic institutions in the US involved in cell therapy are also included in part II along with their commercial collaborations. The text is supplemented with 67 Tables and 25 Figures. The bibliography contains 1,200 selected references, which are cited in the text.

This report contains information on the following:

The report describes and evaluates cell therapy technologies and methods, which have already started to play an important role in the practice of medicine. Hematopoietic stem cell transplantation is replacing the old fashioned bone marrow transplants. Role of cells in drug discovery is also described. Cell therapy is bound to become a part of medical practice.

Stem cells are discussed in detail in one chapter. Some light is thrown on the current controversy of embryonic sources of stem cells and comparison with adult sources. Other sources of stem cells such as the placenta, cord blood and fat removed by liposuction are also discussed. Stem cells can also be genetically modified prior to transplantation.

Cell therapy technologies overlap with those of gene therapy, cancer vaccines, drug delivery, tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. Pharmaceutical applications of stem cells including those in drug discovery are also described. Various types of cells used, methods of preparation and culture, encapsulation and genetic engineering of cells are discussed. Sources of cells, both human and animal (xenotransplantation) are discussed. Methods of delivery of cell therapy range from injections to surgical implantation using special devices.

Cell therapy has applications in a large number of disorders. The most important are diseases of the nervous system and cancer which are the topics for separate chapters. Other applications include cardiac disorders (myocardial infarction and heart failure), diabetes mellitus, diseases of bones and joints, genetic disorders, and wounds of the skin and soft tissues.

Regulatory and ethical issues involving cell therapy are important and are discussed. Current political debate on the use of stem cells from embryonic sources (hESCs) is also presented. Safety is an essential consideration of any new therapy and regulations for cell therapy are those for biological preparations.

Key Topics Covered

Part I: Technologies, Ethics & RegulationsExecutive Summary 1. Introduction to Cell Therapy2. Cell Therapy Technologies3. Stem Cells4. Clinical Applications of Cell Therapy5. Cell Therapy for Cardiovascular Disorders6. Cell Therapy for Cancer7. Cell Therapy for Neurological Disorders8. Ethical, Legal and Political Aspects of Cell therapy9. Safety and Regulatory Aspects of Cell Therapy

Part II: Markets, Companies & Academic Institutions10. Markets and Future Prospects for Cell Therapy11. Companies Involved in Cell Therapy12. Academic Institutions13. References

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Global Animal Biotechnology Industry Insights, 2018-2028 Featuring Profiles of ~124 Players and 110 Collaborations – GlobeNewswire

Posted: at 11:42 pm

Dublin, March 10, 2020 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- The "Animal Biotechnology - Technologies, Markets and Companies" report from Jain PharmaBiotech has been added to's offering.

Share of biotechnology-based products and services in 2018 is analyzed and the market is projected to 2028. The text is supplemented with 36 tables and 6 figures. Selected 260 references from the literature are appended.

Approximately 124 companies have been identified to be involved in animal biotechnology and are profiled in the report. These are a mix of animal healthcare companies and biotechnology companies. Top companies in this area are identified and ranked. Information is given about the research activities of 11 veterinary and livestock research institutes. Important 110 collaborations in this area are shown.

The report contains information on the following:

This report describes and evaluates animal biotechnology and its application in veterinary medicine and pharmaceuticals as well as improvement in food production. Knowledge of animal genetics is important in the application of biotechnology to manage genetic disorders and improve animal breeding. Genomics, proteomics and bioinformatics are also being applied to animal biotechnology.

Transgenic technologies are used for improving milk production and the meat in farm animals as well as for creating models of human diseases. Transgenic animals are used for the production of proteins for human medical use. Biotechnology is applied to facilitate xenotransplantation from animals to humans. Genetic engineering is done in farm animals and nuclear transfer technology has become an important and preferred method for cloning animals. There is a discussion of in vitro meat production by culture.

Biotechnology has potential applications in the management of several animal diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease, classical swine fever, avian flu and bovine spongiform encephalopathy. The most important biotechnology-based products consist of vaccines, particularly genetically engineered or DNA vaccines. Gene therapy for diseases of pet animals is a fast developing area because many of the technologies used in clinical trials humans were developed in animals and many of the diseases of cats and dogs are similar to those in humans.RNA interference technology is now being applied for research in veterinary medicine

Molecular diagnosis is assuming an important place in veterinary practice. Polymerase chain reaction and its modifications are considered to be important. Fluorescent in situ hybridization and enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays are also widely used. Newer biochip-based technologies and biosensors are also finding their way in veterinary diagnostics.

Biotechnology products are approved by the Center for Veterinary Medicine of the FDA. Regulatory issues relevant to animal biotechnology are described.

List of Topics Covered

Executive Summary1. Introduction to Animal Biotechnology2. Application of Biotechnology in Animals3. A Biotechnology Perspective of Animals Diseases4. Molecular Diagnostics in Animals5. Biotechnology-based Veterinary Medicine6. Research in Animal Biotechnology7. Animal Biotechnology Markets8. Regulatory Issues9. Companies Involved in Animal Biotechnology10. References

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Global Animal Biotechnology Industry Insights, 2018-2028 Featuring Profiles of ~124 Players and 110 Collaborations - GlobeNewswire

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7 Engineering Fields with the Highest Satisfaction Rate – ClearanceJobs

Posted: at 11:42 pm

The field of engineering is one of the older STEM fields that has shown a constant increase in the number of graduates each year since the 2008/2009 academic year. If the employment potential was not there, this chart would not have a continuing upward trend.

Data Source:

However, there is more to a career than just having a job. Most of us want one that is rewarding, and one where we feel our work is making a difference in the world. Below are seven chosen engineering careers that not only pay well, have a constant growth rate between 3% and 9%, and high level of satisfaction according to engineers working in these fields.

Systems engineers build and manage complex systems for a variety of businesses. The types of systems include people, equipment and software. A system engineer needs high skills in math and information security, along with above average skills in management and interpersonal communication.

The oil in your cars engine (unless you are driving an all-electric) and natural gas that you use to heat your house comes as a result of work done by petroleum engineers. They must analyze, design, and implement plans for extraction of the crude oil and gas once a natural underground reservoir is found. While the push toward renewable and clean energy will affect job growth in this field in the future, there is still a good potential for graduates for years to come. Students entering this field need good skills in math, science, mechanical engineering and physics.

Engineers in this field use aerodynamics to test aircraft designs to see which ones are the most efficient. Advances in fuel technology, new composite materials and noise pollution reduction will support employment numbers well into the future. Additional training in software like C++, along with a focus on structural engineering will increase the value of this graduate.

Marine engineers are a type of system engineer in that they design and test components found inside ships such as steering, power, refrigeration and lighting. Graduates must know calculus, chemistry, physics, mechanical engineering, and algebra in order to do this type of work.

In the past and up to now, mining engineers worked on ways to safely and economically extract coal and metals from deep inside the Earth. But with a reduction in mining of coal, the future of mining may be extracting precious metals from asteroids and other bodies in outer space. The Colorado School of Mines is the first school to offer a space resource course to prepare graduates for the future in this new area of mining.

A biomedical engineering graduate takes many of the same courses that medical students take to work this field. Students can take one of several disciplines in this field, including medical imaging, nanotechnologies, genetic engineering, or prosthetics. As our aging population continues to grow, the demand for this type of engineer will continue to grow, too.

A specialty within the civil engineering field, this type of engineer concentrates mainly on the design and structure of buildings, bridges, and roadways. While in school, students take a variety of courses including physics, math, and material properties. Once employed, they work alongside architects and construction officials to designstructures that will best withstand the pressures of snow, wind, and earthquakes.

As the chart below shows, of the engineers highlighted in this report, a petroleum engineer not only makes the most money both early and through their mid-career, but they also have the highest satisfaction rate. A win/win for this type of engineer!

Data Source:

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Brazilian Startup Fazenda Futuro Launches the "Sausage of the Future" – vegconomist – the vegan business magazine

Posted: at 11:42 pm

Fazenda Futura

Brazilian Food Tech start-up Fazenda Futuro is launching after its Futuro Burgers, ground beef and meatballs, a vegan sausage with the taste and texture of pork. The sausage of the future uses a unique technology with algae skin to imitate the crunchiness of sausages of animal origin.

Using new technologies, Fazenda Futuro has been working since 2019 to develop what the company refers to as the sausage of the future, having given themselves the added challenge of achieving the taste and texture of a pork leg sausage.

We have come to the market with an obvious objective, to lead the transformation in a category that has never brought innovation to the consumer, and to work with technology and purpose without causing any negative impact on the environment. We are here to change the refrigerated shelves once and for all, stresses Marcos Leta, the founder of Fazenda Futuro.

The product is said to have the taste of seasoned pork, is lighter than the animal versions and is produced without genetic engineering, food coloring, artificial flavors or additives. The FUTURE sausage can be used in pizza toppings, hot dogs and pasta, among other things. The machines for the production were imported from Germany.

According to the press release from Fazenda Futuro, which was launched in April 2019, they are the first of the category kind to aim for plant and animal-free meat production, with the major difference that the meat has the same taste, texture and juiciness as beef or pork. The other products use pea protein, isolated soya and chickpea protein, plus beetroot to imitate the colour and blood of the meat.

The sausages will be launched into restaurants and supermarkets in Brazil and Europe from April.


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Brazilian Startup Fazenda Futuro Launches the "Sausage of the Future" - vegconomist - the vegan business magazine

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Isaac Asimov, the candy store kid who dreamed up robots – Salon

Posted: at 11:42 pm

The year 2020 marks a milestone in the march of robots into popular culture: the 100th anniversary of the birth of science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. Asimov coined the word 'robotics', invented the much-quoted Three Laws governing robot behavior, and passed on many myths and misconceptions that affect the way we feel about robots today.

A compulsive writer and homebodypossibly, an agoraphobicAsimov hated to travel: ironically, for a writer who specialized in fantastic tales often set on distant worlds, he hadn't been in an airplane since being flown home from Hawaii by the US Army after being released from service just before a test blast of the atomic bomb on the Bikini Atoll. (Asimov once grimly observed that this stroke of luck probably saved his life by preventing him from getting leukemia, one of the side effects that afflicted many servicemen who were close to the blast.)

By 1956, Asimov had completed most of the stories that cemented his reputation as the grand master of science fiction, and set the ground rules for a new field of study called "robotics," a word he made up. Researchers like Marvin Minsky of MIT and William Shockley of Bell Labs had been doing pioneering work into Artificial Intelligence and Robotics since the early 1950s, but they were not well-known outside of the scientific and business communities. Asimov, on the other hand, was famous, his books so commercially successful that he quit his job as a tenured chemistry professor at Boston College to write full-time. Asimov's 1950 short story collection, I, Robot, put forward a vision of the robot as humanity's friend and protector, at a time when many humans were wondering if their own species could be trusted not to self-destruct.

Born in January 1920, or possibly October 1919the exact date was uncertain because birth records weren't kept in the little Russian village where he came fromAsimov emigrated to Brooklyn in 1922 with his parents. Making a go of life in America turned out to be tougher than they expected, until his father scraped together enough money to buy a candy store. That decision would have a seismic impact on Isaac's future, and on robotics research and the narratives we tell ourselves about human-robot relationships to this day.

As a kid, Isaac worked long hours in the store where he became interested in two attractions that pulled in customers: a slot machine that frequently needed to be dismantled for repairs; and pulp fiction magazines featuring death rays and alien worlds. Soon after the first rocket launches in the mid-1920s, scientists announced that space travel was feasible, opening the door to exciting tales of adventure in outer space. Atomic energythe source of the death rayswas also coming into public consciousness as a potential "super weapon." But both atomic bombs and space travel were still very much in the realm of fiction; few people actually believed they'd see either breakthrough within their lifetimes.


The genre of the stories in the pulps wasn't new. Fantastical tales inspired by science and technology went back to the publication of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in 1818, which speculated about the use of a revolutionary new energy source, electricity, to reanimate life. Jules Verne, H. P. Lovecraft, H. G. Welles, and Edgar Rice Burroughs all wrote novels touching on everything from time travel, to atomic-powered vehicles, to what we now call genetic engineering. But the actual term, "science fiction," wasn't coined by any of them: that distinction goes to Hugo Gernsbeck, editor of the technical journal, Modern Electrics, whose name would eventually be given to the HUGO, the annual award for the best science fiction writing.13

Gernsbeck's interest in the genre started with a field that was still fairly new in his time: electrical engineering. Even in 1911, the nature of electricity was not fully understood, and random electrocutions were not uncommon; electricians weren't just tradesmen, but daredevils, taking their lives in their hands every time they wired a house or lit up a city street.14 Gernsbeck, perhaps gripped by the same restless derring-do as his readers, wasn't satisfied with writing articles about induction coils. In 1911, he penned a short story set in the twenty-third century and serialized it over several issues of Modern Electrics, a decision that must have baffled some of the electricians who made up his subscribers. At first, Gernsbeck called his mash-up of science and fiction "scientifiction," mercifully changing that mouthful to "science fiction." He went on to publish a string of popular magazines, including Science Wonder Stories, Wonder Stories, Science, and Astounding. (Gernsbeck's rich imagination didn't stretch far enough to come up with more original titles.)

Asimov's father stocked Gernsbeck's magazines in the candy store because they sold like hotcakes, but he considered them out-and-out junk. Young Isaac was forbidden to waste time reading about things that didn't exist and never would, like space travel and atomic weapons.

Despite (or possibly because of) his father's objections, Isaac began secretly reading every pulp science fiction magazine that appeared in the store, handling each one so carefully that Asimov Senior never knew they had been opened. Isaac finally managed to convince his father that one of Gernsbeck's magazines, Science Wonder Stories, had educational valueafter all, the word "science" was in the title, wasn't it?15

Isaac sold his first short story when he was still an eighteen-year-old high school student, naively showing up at the offices of Amazing Stories to personally deliver it to the editor, John W. Campbell. Campbell rejected the story (eventually published by a rival Gernsbeck publication, Astounding) but encouraged Isaac to send him more. Over time, Campbell published a slew of stories that established Isaac, while still a university student, as a handsomely paid writer of science fiction.

When you read those early stories today, Asimov's weaknesses as a writer are painfully glaring. With almost no experience of the world outside of his school, the candy store, and his Brooklyn neighborhood and no exposure to contemporary writers of his time like Hemingway or FitzgeraldIsaac fell back on the flat, stereotypical characters and clichd plots of pulp fiction. Isaac did have one big thing going for him, though: a science education.

By the early 1940s, Asimov was a graduate student in chemistry at Columbia University, as well as a member of the many science fiction fan clubs springing up all over Brooklyn whose members' obsession with the minutiae of fantastical worlds would be familiar to any ComicCon fan in a Klingon costume today. Asimov wrote stories that appealed to this newly emerging geeky readership, staying close enough to the boundaries of science to be plausible, while still instinctively understanding how to create wondrous fictional worlds.

The working relationship between Asimov and his editor, Campbell, turned into a highly profitable one for both publisher and author. But as Asimov improved his writing and tackled more complex themes, he ran into a roadblock: Campbell insisted that he would only publish human- centered stories. Aliens could appear as stock villains but humans always had to come out on top. Campbell didn't just believe that people were superior to aliens, but that some peoplewhite Anglo-Saxons were superior to everyone else. Still a relatively young writer and unwilling to walk away from his lucrative gig with Campbell, Asimov looked for ways to work around his editor's prejudices. The answer: write about robots. Asimov's mechanical beings were created by humans, in their own image; as sidekicks, helpers, proxies, and, eventually, replacements. Endowed with what Asimov dubbed "positronic brains," his imaginary robots were even more cleverly constructed than the slot machine in the candy store.

Never a hands-on guy himself, Asimov was nonetheless interested in how mechanisms worked. Whenever the store's one-armed bandit had to be serviced, Isaac would watch the repairman open the machine and expose its secrets. The slot machine helped him imagine the mechanical beings in his stories.

Although Asimov can be credited with kick-starting a generation's love affair with robots, he was far from their inventor. (Even I, Robot borrowed its title from a 1939 comic book of the same name written by a pair of brothers who called themselves Eando Binder, the name eventually bestowed on the beer-swilling, cigar-smoking robot star of the TV show, Futurama.) But in writing his very first robot story, Asimov was both jumping on a new obsession of the 1920s, and mining old, deep myths going back to ancient Jewish tales of the golem, which was a man made of mud and magically brought to life, as well as stories as diverse as Pygmalion, Pinocchio, and engineering wonders like the eighteenth century, chess-playing Mechanical Turk, and other automatons.

Robots have an ancient history and a surprisingly whimsical one. Automatons have been frog marching, spinet playing, and minuet dancing their way out of the human imagination for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, but it wasn't until the machine age of the early twentieth century that robots appeared as thinking, reasoning substitute humans. The word robotCzech for "mechanical worker"wasn't coined in a patent office or on a technical blueprint, but as the title of a fantastical play by Karel Capek, Rossum's Universal Robots, which was first performed in 1920, the reputed year of Isaac Asimov's birth. In adopting robots as his main characters, and the challenges and ethics of human life in a robotic world as one of his central themes, Asimov found his voice as a writer. His robots are more sympathetic and three-dimensional than his human characters. In exploring the dynamics of human-robot partnershipsas Asimov would do particularly well in detective/robot "buddy" stories, such as his 1954 novel Caves of Steel he invented a subgenre within the broader world of science fiction.

Asimov's humanoid robots were governed by the Three Laws of Robotics. More whimsical than scientific, they established ground rules for an imaginary world where humans and mechanical beings coexisted. Eventually, the Three Laws were quoted by researchers in two academic fields that were still unnamed in the 1940s: artificial intelligence and robotics.

First published by Astounding magazine in 1942 as part of Asimov's fourth robot story "Runaround", the Three Laws stated that:

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

According to Asimov's biographer Michael Wilson in Isaac Asimov: A Life of the Grand Master of Science Fiction (New York, Carrol & Graff, 2005), "Asimov was flattered that he had established a set of pseudoscientific laws. Despite the fact that in the early 1940s the science of robotics was a purely fictional thing, he somehow knew that one day they would provide the foundation for a real set of laws."

The Three Laws would continue to appear not only in the world of robot-driven books and filmslike Aliens (1986), where the laws are synopsized by the synthetic human Bishop when trying to reassure the robot-phobic heroine Ellen Ripleybut by some real-world roboticists and AI researchers, who are now considering how to develop a moral code for machines that may one day have to make independent, life-or-death decisions.

Excerpt from:
Isaac Asimov, the candy store kid who dreamed up robots - Salon

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