All posts by LL

German breeders develop ‘open source’ plant seeds

There’s open-source software, open-source pharma research, and open-source beer. Now, there are open-source seeds, too. Breeders from Göttingen University in Germany and Dottenfelderhof agricultural school in Bad Vilbel, Germany, have released tomato and wheat varieties under an open-source license. Their move follows similar schemes for sharing plant material in India and the United States, but is the first that provides legal protection for the open-source status of future descendants of plant varieties.

The idea behind the open-source license is that scientists and breeders can experiment with seeds—and improve them—unimpeded by legal restrictions. The license “says that you can use the seed in multiple ways but you are not allowed to put a plant variety protection or patent on this seed and all the successive developments of this seed,” says agricultural scientist Johannes Kotschi, who helped write the license last year. Kotschi manages OpenSourceSeeds for the nonprofit Agrecol in Marburg, Germany, which announced the tomato and wheat licensing in Berlin in late April.

Since then, university, nonprofit, and organic breeders have expressed interest in issuing open-source licenses for their hop, potato, and tomato varieties, Kotschi says. Many have also requested the open-source tomato seeds, he adds. People have been breeding plants in search of desirable features, such as drought- and pest-resistance, for millennia. But until 1930, when the United States began applying patent law to plants, there was little a breeder could do to assert ownership over a new variety.

Since then, a flurry of protections, including patents and a special intellectual property system for crops called “plant variety protection,” has begun to block the way for researchers trying to breed new varieties, open-source advocates say. Developing the famous Golden Rice, for example, required so-called humanitarian exemptions to plant patents. As a result of mergers, plant intellectual property is in the hands of a shrinking number of companies.

International agreements on plant variety protection include a so-called breeder’s exception that allows for research—but breeders who use it to develop a new commercial variety have to pay royalties to the owner of the protected variety. And patents are even more restrictive, says Niels Louwaars, director of Plantum, a plant breeder’s association in Gouda, the Netherlands: “When one trait in a plant is patented, you are in principle not allowed under the research exemption to use such materials for further breeding,” he says.

The recent German licensing action circumvents those problems. Anyone can use the varieties, so long as they do not prevent others from conducting research on derivatives; all of the plant’s future descendants are also in a “commons.”

An allied U.S. group called the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) tried for several years to write a similar binding license but concluded in 2014 that it was too unwieldy to gain widespread acceptance among breeders and seed companies, says plant geneticist and OSSI Executive Director Claire Luby of the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Because patents play a bigger role in plant intellectual property in the United States, breeders are more hemmed in than in Europe. Instead, OSSI now encourages supporters to make and follow a “pledge” to keep new varieties and derivatives open.

Organic seed company Fruition Seeds in Naples, New York, has taken a carrot population Luby and colleagues put into the commons and begun breeding it to create a sexually reproducing variety, Luby says. Luby has also sent out open-pledged carrot seeds to university researchers over the last couple years.

There’s a similar development in India, where agriculture scientist GV Ramanjaneyulu of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture in Hyderabad has organized an open-source network that has bred and shared eight varieties of rice, wheat, and pulses. That may seem superfluous, because Indian law does not recognize patents on plants or plant traits at all. But a much-debated seed law pending since 2004 could change that. “We are trying to prepare for the future,” Ramanjaneyulu says. “Conditions should be much simpler and easier for sharing.”

But Louwaars cautions that a complete shift to an open-source system would harm innovation. Commercial breeders, the main producers of economically important new crop varieties, can’t use open-source seeds because they would not be able to claim royalties for any varieties they develop from them. If too many seeds were in the open source–only commons, they would be “killing the business model,” Louwaars says. Many universities would also lose out if they could no longer charge royalties for plant traits or breeding tools.

How much of an impact the various sharing systems have remains to be seen. For now, it’s best to experiment with them in different legal systems, Ramanjaneyulu says: “Let each nation decide, and let’s learn from each other.”

First published on Science’s ScienceInsider blog: [html] [pdf].

Taxonomy Goes Digital: Getting a Handle on Social Bots

Incoming messages for straight men on dating sites are… rare. Yet many of the dashing men who tried out Ashley Madison, a site aimed at the already-married, got messages soon after signing up. To see the messages, the men had to pay. The more perceptive among them soon noticed that their pen pals wrote similar come-ons, logged in and out at the same time every day, and oddest of all, had not visited the men’s profiles. Ashley Madison was using more than 70,000 bots to lure in users, Gizmodo found in a 2015 investigation.

The message-sending profiles were one iteration of a growing army of bots that populate our online social networks, affecting everything from our wallets to our politics. Now they are attracting academic study and government research dollars.

“For the first time, humans are beginning to share their social ecosystem with a new species,” says computer science graduate student Gregory Maus, of Indiana University. And because not everybody is as attentive as the Ashley Madison user who blew the whistle on the fembots, human users of social networks are susceptible to everything from outright scams to subtler political influence by bots promoting fake news. In response, two years ago the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) challenged researchers to identify “influence bots” and is now funding further research on social networks.

Maus will present one of a growing number of socialbot taxonomies at the ACM Web Science conference in Troy, New York, this June. The taxonomy seeks to expand on earlier taxonomies focused on identifying the different types of botnets and categorizing malicious socialbots that, for example, flood with spam a Twitter hashtag used to organize political protests. Another recent paper began mapping the existence of benign bots. Maus says he hopes his new taxonomy will be a more “broad, flexible framework useful for researchers” seeking both to understand and interact with bots.

“The interesting aspect of the current work is that it considers five different dimensions,” says computational social scientist Taha Yasseri of Oxford University in the United Kingdom, who earlier this year published a case study of an unexpected years-long conflict between Wikipedia maintenance-bots.

Maus’ paper sketches out categories based on the degree to which a bot tries to pretend to be human, who its owner is, how the bot interacts with other bots, whether it hides its connection to its owner, and its mission. Some of these have their own sub-categories. Yasseri adds that it would be useful to examine how the different types interact with each other, rather than just studying each type in isolation. The interaction of human and machine networks is the focus of Yasseri’s European Union-funded project, HUMANE.

In fact, that has been one of the features of the human approach to studying bot taxonomies: variety and interactivity. Researchers come from a wide range of backgrounds. Maus, whose undergraduate degree is in philosophy, worked in marketing before joining the Networks & agents Network group at IU. His colleagues there have a mixture of backgrounds in psychology, mathematics, physics, and computer science.

Maus says students or others interested in working on social network taxonomy can get an immediate start by studying the APIs of a social network and reaching out to other researchers working on these problems. His supervisor, Filippo Menczer, accepts potential students through any of three different Ph.D. tracks. The area of bot taxonomy is young enough—and complex enough—that the variety of human profiles almost matches that of the bots.

First published by IEEE Spectrum: [html] [pdf].

How should we protect and preserve our history — on the moon?

The next several years are shaping up to be busy ones for the moon, with no fewer than 14 landings in the works. That includes the robotic missions soon to be undertaken by five privately funded teams vying for the $20 million Google Lunar XPRIZE, in which the contestants must land a rover on a pre-planned spot, move it at least 500 meters “along an interesting path in a deliberate manner,” and transmit video and other data back to Earth. In fact, tracks from the Google Lunar XPRIZE (GLXP) rovers could be the next intentional tracks to be made by humans on the moon’s surface.

But amid the excitement of exploring the moon, we can’t overlook our lunar heritage, says Derek Webber, a commercial space exploration consultant and former satellite engineer (TEDxBudapest talk: Claiming the future; protecting the past). After all, humanity’s past isn’t just what has been left here on Earth — it’s in space, too. “Lunar heritage is the record of when we first reached the moon, and it captures the epoch-making reality of what happened back then,” he says. New voyagers will encounter 58 years’ worth of human-created artifacts on the moon, including flags and footprintsHere’s why we should be thoughtful about what we do with them.

Don’t worry. NASA’s got a (tentative) plan. The basis of international space law is the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which has been signed by 106 nations and states that while the planets and celestial bodies belong to all countries, objects in space are owned by the governments that launched them. In 2011, NASA issued an initial set of recommendations on best practices for America’s moon heritage sites, which include the locations where the Apollo missions landed. The guidelines address such questions as how far a rocket should stay away from heritage sites during its landing approach (two kilometers) and how far a rover on the ground should stay from objects to minimize the odds of an accident (one to three meters, depending on the item). However, these aren’t formal rules, and they pertain only to US equipment. So it will take cross-border cooperation and goodwill to ensure that the next wave of explorers act responsibly.

There’s tons of stuff on the moon — and a ton of valuable information. It’s estimated that up to 400,000 pounds of human-made debris have been deposited on that celestial body. The American stuff includes five national flags, a gold olive branch (which was left by the Apollo 11 crew in 1969 as a gesture of peace), discarded packaging from meals, used wet wipes, and dozens of spacecraft, both intentionally and accidentally crashed. And, of course, there are the other less visible but no less important souvenirs of America’s impact on the moon, such as the footsteps of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and the 10 other US astronauts who have walked on the moon. “There’s a whole lot of data to get from those sites and objects,” says University of Central Florida planetary physicist Phil Metzger, who was involved in writing the NASA guidelines. Researchers could study crashed spacecraft to determine why they stopped working, and the successfully landed vehicles could yield information about space weathering under temperatures that veer from +200 to -200 Celsius. “We want to know how different materials have held up in the space environment,” says Metzger. Even assessing the amount of dust collected on items can tell us about the flux of micrometeorites, which will shed light on how the lunar surface was formed and how the solar system works.

Space heritage won’t last forever. If lunar heritage sites attract robotic or human pilgrims, they’re likely to degrade faster. Since the GLXP competition is aimed at developing low-cost methods of space exploration, “my biggest concern is that [the GLXP missions are] being done on a shoestring, says Roger Launius, former senior curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, and the author or editor of 26 books on space. He believes the less money the teams have to spend, the less likely the guidance technology for their landers and rovers is to work. One important question to consider is whether NASA can realistically protect the sites while at the same time being able to conduct any necessary science experiments and make them accessible to future space tourists.

Moon visitors could help provide answers. GLXP teams have been asked to follow NASA’s guidelines, so its recommendations will undergo real-life testing. Teams can win bonus prizes of up to $4 million for producing high-quality video and photographic documentation of heritage sites, so competitors will be motivated to come up with ways to approach the areas without harming them. After the upcoming missions by GLXP teams and by other governments and entities, NASA can “review their work and add aspects to take care of omissions as future knowledge emerges,” says Webber. Flexibility is essential — since moon exploration is relatively nascent, “there’s no possible way we could be smart enough to write really good guidelines at this point,” adds Metzger.

Space conservation efforts must strike a balance between past, present and future. Since outer-space spots are not yet tourist destinations, people with the moon bug must settle for digital substitutes now and in the near future — Google offers 3D tours of the Moonthrough Google Earth and the Smithsonian is planning to incorporate virtual reality into its future Apollo exhibits. At the same time, though, governments must prepare for the inevitable reality of space travel and make plans to protect their country’s artifacts on the moon. A goal should be “to tell that story in the best possible way with the best preserved site possible,” says Launius.

In terms of models, at one extreme are the Churchill War Rooms — the London space where Winston Churchill and the British Cabinet did their plotting during World War II and which is open to the public as a museum. The Rooms are “a good example of halting time, as it were, and preserving a moment and place of history,” Webber says. At the other extreme is Stonehenge, where ongoing attempts to provide access to visitors have created new layers of changes to the site. Regardless of what decisions the next visitors to space heritage sites make, one thing is certain — they probably won’t please everyone. “There will always be a tension between those wanting to protect the past, and those wanting to keep moving forward,” Webber says.

First published by TED Ideas: [html] [pdf]. 

Trial and error in a Mexican beach town

When general store owner Melchor Villanueva leans on his countertop he can see his whole world under his hands. The counter’s glass surface displays photos of his community: young soccer players, teens in their coming-of-age quince años finest, and bandanna-wearing fishermen. Many descend from survivors of Hurricane Janet, which in 1955 killed a third of the population of Xcalak, a beach town on the Mexico-Belize border, and destroyed the town’s coconut plantations. “It left only sand,” Villanueva recalls. Continue reading