Posts Tagged ‘science’

Euglena — the little single-celled organism that could save the world

Saturday, June 22nd, 2013

Euglena, a simple, single-celled organism that grows in fresh water, trumpeted as a solution to food shortages, a potential replacement for fossil fuels and a way to reduce CO2 emissions, has been making headlines lately in Japan. Stock in Euglena Co., a company founded at Tokyo University in 2005, has soared 10-fold this year and the announcement made last month by Osaka University in collaboration with Euglena Co. that a film made from a carbohydrate found in euglena called paramylon is effective in healing wounds, is bound to further boost the huge buzz around this rapidly expanding bio-tech company.

A euglena smoothie available at Juice Zone in Shibuya

A euglena smoothie available at Juice Zone in Shibuya

Euglena, which are also known in Japanese as midorimushi, are 1mm long thin organisms that give water a greenish hue when they multiply in ponds. Though often classified as algae, they are in fact a curious mix of plant and animal, able to both photosynthesize like a plant and consume food like an animal. Incredibly, these slightly fishy-tasting oddities are teaming with almost all the nutrients humans need to stay alive, including vitamins C and B2, calcium and iron. It’s not hard to see why Mitsuru Izumo, co-founder of Euglena Co., saw its potential as an ingredient capable of solving the world’s hunger problems.

Euglena Co. has been mass cultivating the stuff since 2005 and euglena is now not only available to buy as a vitamin supplement, but has also been successfully marketed as an ingredient in confectionery.

Fancy a euglena cookie? There’s even green-tinted euglena ramen sold at a restaurant adjacent to the University of Tokyo campus. Just last month, euglena lattes and euglena smoothies were introduced to the market.

But wait . . . there’s more! Because the organism grows by photosynthesis, it’s capable of reducing CO2 emissions. Euglena Co. carried out a successful experiment in 2009 at a coal-powered thermal power plant in Okinawa. Passing waste emissions through a euglena culture tank, it was observed that the organism thrived, thus demonstrating “an effective and potential solution to the global warming,” according to the company’s website.

If that wasn’t enough, the company is now developing jet fuel, yes, jet fuel, made from euglena and plans to produce a steady supply by 2018, a promise that has boosted speculative trade in Euglena Co. on the stock market. Furthermore it was just announced that the company won the Japan-U.S. Innovation Awards’ Emerging Leader Award, pushing the profile of this high flying bio-tech company even higher.

Bunpei Yorifuji’s ‘Wonderful Life with the Elements’

Wednesday, October 17th, 2012

Remember that kid who doodled all through your chemistry class instead of taking notes? Now imagine if that kid had an encyclopedic knowledge of the elements as well as a knack for drawings that made everyone giggle behind the teacher’s back.

Bunpei Yorifuji’s Wonderful Life with the Elements

That’s the feeling we get flipping through Bunpei Yorifuji‘s “Wonderful Life With the Elements.” Yorifuji is well known for his series of Tokyo Metro manners posters that urged riders to, among other things, “do it at home.”

Though the pull-out periodic table poster looks at first like a random collection of whimsical yellow guys, every part of each endearing little dude is carefully designed. From their ages, hair styles, and clothing (or lack thereof) to their weight and facial hair, every, well, element of each element matters and tells you something about each substance. (It might remind kanji nerds of the way kanji radicals add up.)

Most of the elements get their own pages. Illustrations show key properties (toxic thallium is soft like butter) as well as where they turn up in daily life (“Sodium compounds are great for housework!”) and beyond (boron is key in both fake movie snow and roach poison). There’s a section on eating the elements that compares the elements contained in a Japanese vs. a Western breakfast.

We learn which elements like to stick together for good, like the “digital semiconductor trio.” Troublemakers are grouped together, too, like the elements that were used to attack subways in Tokyo as sarin gas and to poison a pot of curry in Wakayama. They appear as benign-looking acrobatic combinations, perhaps suggesting that the elements themselves aren’t evil.

We wonder if future editions might address elements that have gained new prominence. Things have changed since the original Japanese version (元素生活, genso seikatsu) came out in 2009. Japanese scientists created Ununtrium for the first time just last month. Cesium, the subject of thousands of post-Fukushima articles, gets no more than a nod as a natural timekeeper, and there’s no mention of the problems that iodine can cause when its radioactive version is ingested.

The English version, published by geeky U.S. imprint No Starch Press, is available in Japan through Amazon.com or Amazon.jp. The original is at bookstores all over Japan and online. There is a bit of Japanese scattered throughout the book, including each element’s Japanese name and Chinese character, but not their readings. The book may be too late to help many of us pass our chemistry tests, but it’s a great second chance to get to know the elements as the individuals they are.

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