Biotech startup Taxa debuts genetically engineered fragrant moss

Taxa, a biotech startup in Silicon Valley, has debuted a new product: Orbella, a line of three fragrant mosses genetically engineered to give off aromas of patchouli, linalool (floral, clean, and fresh), and geraniol (rose-like). The project is a textbook example of synthetic biology, or synbio, which is the application of engineering techniques to the building blocks of life. (Basically, creating new life forms.)

Orbella was produced through a collaboration between Taxa and Dr. Henrik Simonsen, a professor at the University of Copenhagen whose work focuses on using photosynthesis (as opposed to conventional chemical synthesis) to biosynthesize small molecules.

The scented mosses were created by taking genes associated with a certain scent and splicing them into the moss genes. The actual process sounds like a near-future sci fi plot point: the scientists design the spliced gene online, use a gene gun (real name) to insert the genes into the moss cells, and then grow the GMO moss in liquid form.

If you’ve heard of Taxa before, it’s probably because of their intensely controversial Glowing Plant Kickstarter project. Back in 2013, Taxa successfully funded the Glowing Plant project with the promise of delivering a genetically modified plant that’d glow in the dark. Problem is, the biotech required to actually produce the glowing plant proved to be beyond Taxa’s reach, and their actual product hardly emitted any light.

Regardless of the success (or not) of the Glowing Plant itself, the Kickstarter project faced heavy blowback amid concerns of GMO products hitting consumer markets without any regulatory oversight. Prompted by the Glowing Plant controversy, Kickstarter banned GMO projects shortly thereafter. Taxa then pivoted to fragrant moss, which is much easier to engineer due to its simpler genome and shorter life-cycle, which allows scientists to run experiments more quickly.

Why It’s Hot: Orbella is a step forward in the consumer-facing biotech sphere. Taxa’s hope is that the product helps to positively change people’s perception of GMOs and demonstrate the varied uses of the emerging technology. Taxa is also funded primarily through crowd funding, and they’re an independent biotech company – their work is proving that GMO products don’t have to be the sole purview of massive conglomerates.

More significantly, though, the synbio field is truly the future of biotech, and represents mind-bogglingly vast possibilities for humanity – along with equally vast moral and ethical quandaries. How much modification is too much? Where’s the line between a fun, harmless GMO like scented moss and something more troubling? And who should be allowed to produce, and sell, and purchase GMO products in the first place?

Orbella Moss: Gizmodo | Business InsiderOrbella Moss
The Glowing Plant project: Kickstarter | Mother Jones | The Verge

Augmented reality without glasses

Diagram of artificial lense

Artificial lens diagram via

Six months ago, Omega Ophthalmics did a small trial of seven patients outside of the US. Their goal was to test for adverse effects of a surgery similar to lens replacements that often accompany cataract removals. The difference? Rather than replacing the cloudy lens with a normal artificial lens, surgeons instead implanted a lens that could be used for augmented reality, interactive sensors, or drug delivery.

Why it’s hot

Although widespread adoption of this technology is unlikely in the near future, scientists, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists hope that there is a market for such implants in an aging population that wants to be independent for longer. Whether this small trial is successful may pave the way for larger trials to test additional possibilities and risk.

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The next generation of AI will augment our brains

When Elon Musk is not driving the expansion of intergalactic colonial footprint through SpaceX or exploring ways to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels, he is building a brain-computer interface venture called Neuralink. 

The company is creating devices that can be implanted in the human brain with the aspirational hope to help humans merge with software and keep pace with the advancements of artificial intelligence. Musk is once again pioneering the exploration of tech innovation – progress called “neural lace”, which is a sci-fi shorthand for a brain-computer interface humans can use to improve themselves.

Image result for neuralinkThe aspiration is very positive – could help improve memory and allow for more direct interfacing with computing devices. Forget Google Glass, iWatches or Oculus Rift – our ability to connect with digital ecosystems will be embedded in our brains, arms, legs, abdomen.

Why It’s Hot: 

  • Closer step to merging biological intelligence and digital intelligence will help accelerate the speed of the connection between our brains and digital outputs of who we are – emails, texts, likes, web searches, online purchases, etc.
  • Bigger leap on medical innovation – ameliorating the effects of Parkinson’s, epilepsy, and other neurodegenerative diseases through electrodes and other implants.

Why It might be COLD: 

  • it is incredibly dangerous and invasive to operate on the human brain and only those who have exhausted every other medical option choose to undergo neuro-related surgeries. it’s always a last resort -would the risk be worth it?