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Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2008

NATURAL SELECTIONS

Japan's science in '08


In Chinese astrology, rats are said to hunger for power and to be unpredictable, and in 2008 — a Year of the Rat — both those characteristics were clearly in evidence. What with the financial crisis that is changing the established order of things, and the food and fuel crises that have sent shock waves around the world, many people will be only too pleased to see this rattish year end.

News photo
Designing new hope: Pioneering scientist Yoshiyuki Sankai wears a predecessor from '06 of his '08 "cyborg" device to give strength to frail old people. TOMOKO OTAKE PHOTO

As we say sayonara to the rodent for another 11 years, let's look back on what Japanese science has brought us over the last year. Or rather, what I most readily recall from the last year — not necessarily the most important scientific discoveries, but the most memorable moments of what in many ways wasn't such a rattish year after all.

Onward and upward. At the beginning of the year, Japan's space agency announced an astronaut-recruitment campaign, the first for a decade, as the country's space program got back on track.

There were several Japanese successes — the establishment of a Japanese module orbiting the Moon and the delivery of the huge Kibo science laboratory to the International Space Station (ISS), ensuring Japan has a permanent base in space. And that's not forgetting the boomerang experiment by Japanese astronaut Takao Doi — he proved, on the ISS, that even in space a boomerang returns to its pitcher.

Japan is often ahead of the curve, and back on Earth a milestone was passed. The government announced that 10 percent of the population was now aged 75 or above, and that nearly 28 million people were aged 65 or older.

Japan as a society is right to be concerned about the impact of an ever- aging population, and at the University of Tsukuba in Ibaraki Prefecture, researchers led by Yoshiyuki Sankai are developing their own solutions to the frailties of old age: an exoskeleton for grannies. Sankai has made an exoskeleton that fits over the shoulder and turns grandma into a cyborg. Sensors and motors allow the wearer to move the robotic arm as if it were their own.

There were the usual stories about whaling, as the humpback came off the endangered list and Japan sent out its whaling ships under tighter security than before.

Japan was criticized in March as figures showed its carbon-dioxide emissions had increased to a record high. The world's fifth-largest carbon-dioxide producer now faces the embarrassing prospect of failing to reach its target for carbon emissions over the next four years. Where was that carbon-emissions agreement signed? Oh yes, Kyoto.

But let's not dwell on the negative.

There were three other stories in 2008 that were inspirational in their scope and potential.

First, Shinya Yamanaka of the University of Kyoto pioneered a technique that could reprogram adult cells back into an embryonic state. That means the cells could be used to grow new organs and tissues for transplantation.

This has been done before, but with the older techniques cancer-causing genes sometimes get into the tissues. Yamanaka's method of making "induced pluripotent stem cells" avoids these problems. It works in mouse cells, now he hopes to try it in human cells.

Second, Teruhiko Wakayama of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture, cloned mice from the brain cells of animals frozen for 16 years. Until recently, cloning even from fresh cells was difficult enough, but Wakayama's success raised hopes that endangered animals that are frozen can be cloned and used to repopulate the species. If that's not sci-fi enough for you, the technique made headlines because it was suggested that woolly mammoths preserved in permafrost could also be cloned.

It would be difficult, said Wakayama, but not impossible.

News photo
Back to the future: A baby mammoth from 40,000 years ago found in Siberia in 1977 is filmed while on display in Budapest in March 2008. A Japanese breakthrough in '08 brings the prospect of cloning such extinct beasts much closer. AP PHOTO

My third "inspirational" story from Japan, and one of my favorites of 2008, is something which, when I first read about it, I simply didn't believe. Even after reading the scientific paper that describes the breakthrough, I could still barely believe it.

It is this: "Mind-reading" technology is now able to recreate images and words you observe by extracting the information from your brain.

Using a functional MRI scanner (surely a candidate for the Single Bit of Technology that has Delivered Most Amazing Stories Prize?), Yukiyasu Kamitani at ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in Kyoto used scans of brain activity to recreate a black-and-white image.

But this is what I couldn't believe: By analyzing the signals produced by the brain when someone is looking at an image, the scientists were able to recreate that image.

Hold on a minute; we can all picture something in our head that isn't directly in front of our eyes — memories of a loved one, a particularly delicious poached oyster, a holiday — does this mean the machine would be able to decode what we are imagining? Potentially, yes.

The technology is in its infancy, and the images that can be decoded are as yet basic. But it is only a matter of time before we can extract higher-quality images. One scientist commenting on the paper said that one day we'd even be able to record our dreams for later playback.

So it's farewell until 2020 to a Year of the Rat. Perhaps 2008 wasn't such a ratty year, all things considered, but I think we do need the strength and fortitude of a bigger animal for the tough times looming in 2009. Fortunately, it's the Year of the Ox.

The second volume of Natural Selections columns translated into Japanese is published by Shinchosha at ¥1,500. The title is "Hito wa Ima Mo Shinka Shiteru (The Evolving Human: How New Biology Explains Your Journey Through Life)."


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