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Since antiquity, cultures on nearly every continent have discovered that certain plant leaves, when chewed or brewed or rubbed on the body, could relieve diverse ailments, inspire hallucinations or, in higher dosages, even cause death. Today, pharmaceutical companies import these once-rare plants from specialized farms and extract their active chemical compounds to make drugs like scopolamine for relieving motion sickness and postoperative nausea, and atropine, to curb the drooling associated with Parkinson’s disease or help maintain cardiac function when intubating COVID-19 patients and placing them on ventilators.

Now, Stanford engineers are recreating these ancient remedies in a thoroughly modern way by genetically reprogramming the cellular machinery of a special strain of yeast, effectively transforming them into microscopic factories that convert sugars and amino acids into these folkloric drugs, in much the same way that brewers’ yeast can naturally convert sugars into alcohol.

Stanford engineers reprogram yeast cells to become microscopic drug factories

The stylized yeast cells depicted in several leaves and flower petals are an artist’s interpretation of how scientists, using the tools of synthetic biology, genetically engineered yeast to brew plant-based medicines that traditional societies discovered in nature. Image credit: Jennifer Cook-Chrysos

“The drug shortages we’re seeing around the COVID-19 crisis drive home why we need new and more reliable ways to source these plant-based medicines, which take months to years to grow and come from a few countries, where climate change, natural disasters and geopolitical issues can disrupt supplies,” said Christina Smolke, a professor of bioengineering and senior author of a paper published today in Nature.

Prashanth Srinivasan, a graduate student in Smolke’s lab and first author of the paper, carried out the factory-floor reprogramming of yeast. With an engineer’s mindset, he looked at each of the yeast organelles, or basic metabolic units, as workstations on an assembly line. He imagined the nucleus as the factory control center, regulating the step-by-step chemical process needed to assemble medicinal compounds. Mitochondria, the energy-producing organelles, demanded special attention. Cells use electrons to hook or unhook molecules on the assembly line, and Srinivasan needed a lot of them to make the products he wanted – a family of complex chemical compounds called tropane alkaloids. Humans have used these compounds for millennia for everything from relieving toothaches and bellyaches to conducting religious rituals and poisoning rivals.

A long history of use

The wide-ranging medicinal utility of tropane alkaloids are an accident of co-evolution. A chemical that two plant families – coca, producers of cocaine, and nightshades, which include henbane and tobacco as well as tomatoes and peppers – evolved to defend against insects and animals just so happen to fit perfectly into a critical cell receptor in the mammalian nervous system. These acetylcholine or ACh receptors help convert nerve impulses into actions by muscles, glands and other human tissues. When a tropane alkaloid enters the bloodstream, it binds to these ACh receptors and either stimulates or inhibits the adjoining muscle, gland or tissue, resulting in diverse and widespread effects.

Traditional societies didn’t understand the biochemistry of these compounds but they did notice their medicinal virtues. Native Andeans chewed or brewed teas from coca leaves to suppress hunger, treat gastrointestinal ailments and for recreation. From Europe to North Africa to Western Asia, various peoples favored tropane alkaloids derived from deadly nightshade, or Atropa belladonna, so named for its use by women as a cosmetic agent for dilation of the pupils; modern ophthalmologists still use it to elicit the same effect during eye exams. In Southeast Asia, tropane alkaloids from Datura plants were taken orally for sinus infections, and Australia’s Aboriginal people based rituals on the hallucinogenic effects of the shrub Duboisia, which is the primary source of tropane alkaloid for drugs today.

Metabolic engineering

Smolke and her team spent three years making a total of 34 genetic modifications to the yeast’s DNA to control every step in the unseen chemical assembly process of tropane alkaloids. Their approach – called metabolic engineering – is a more precise form of biotechnology in which genetic reprogramming uses or modifies naturally-occurring cellular processes to manufacture products to meet human needs. For instance, when brewers’ yeast produce alcohol, the cells naturally expel the chemical so we can collect and drink it. The Stanford team carefully engineered the organelles and membranes of their engineered yeast to make sure that their intricate tropane alkaloid molecules emerged intact from the chemical assembly line so that they would be useful for medicines.

1599116593 696 Stanford engineers reprogram yeast cells to become microscopic drug factories

Certain plants in the nightshade and coca families produce compounds called tropane alkaloids that can interact with the human nervous system to induce medicinal effects. Now, Stanford scientists have genetically programmed the inner workings of yeast cells to create microscopic chemical factories to produce the tropane alkaloid drugs hyoscyamine and scopolamine, much as ordinary yeast are used to brew beer.

Smolke, who has previously bioengineered yeast to produce a different family of plant-based analgesic drugs, has co-founded a biotech startup that will license the technology from Stanford to take the experimental quantities of medicines produced by these cell factories into full-scale production, which she expects to take about two years.

“Plants are the world’s best chemists,” said Smolke. “We want to recapitulate their unique and useful chemistries in domesticated microbes to build complex molecules inspired by the natural world but tailored to better meet human needs.”

Source: Stanford University

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Fast and Robust Bio-inspired Teach and Repeat Navigation

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The navigation of robots is a demanding task. Luckily, we can rely on biological systems, such as ants, which can navigate with limited vision and computing power. A recent study suggests a teach and repeat navigation system for repeated route following.

It is based on wheel odometry, with vision providing a periodic correction signal. This technique can be applied to small low-cost robots, which usually have wheel odometry sensors and a monocular camera but do not have stereo vision or LiDAR sensors. The rate of visual correction can be changed accordingly to available computation resources.

Fast and Robust Bio inspired Teach and Repeat Navigation

Example of a navigation Doppler lidar instrument. Credits: NASA

The approach was verified in indoor and outdoor trials at different times of the day and in varying weather conditions. It can be used for new robotic systems with minimal tuning. The method is robust to odometry errors and can work with low-resolution images.

Fully autonomous mobile robots have a multitude of potential applications, but guaranteeing robust navigation performance remains an open research problem. For many tasks such as repeated infrastructure inspection, item delivery or inventory transport, a route repeating capability rather than full navigation stack can be sufficient and offers potential practical advantages. Previous teach and repeat research has achieved high performance in difficult conditions generally by using sophisticated, often expensive sensors, and has often had high computational requirements. Biological systems, such as small animals and insects like seeing ants, offer a proof of concept that robust and generalisable navigation can be achieved with extremely limited visual systems and computing power. In this work we create a novel asynchronous formulation for teach and repeat navigation that fully utilises odometry information, paired with a correction signal driven by much more computationally lightweight visual processing than is typically required. This correction signal is also decoupled from the robot’s motor control, allowing its rate to be modulated by the available computing capacity. We evaluate this approach with extensive experimentation on two different robotic platforms, the Consequential Robotics Miro and the Clearpath Jackal robots, across navigation trials totalling more than 6000 metres in a range of challenging indoor and outdoor environments. Our approach is more robust and requires significantly less compute than the state-of-the-art. It is also capable of intervention-free — no parameter changes required — cross-platform generalisation, learning to navigate a route on one robot and repeating that route on a different type of robot with different camera.


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Facebook Demands Academics Disable Ad-Targeting Data Tool

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Academics, journalists, and First Amendment lawyers are rallying behind New York University researchers in a showdown with Facebook over its demand that they halt the collection of data showing who is being micro-targeted by political ads on the world’s dominant social media platform.

The researchers say the disputed tool is vital to understanding how Facebook has been used as a conduit for disinformation and manipulation.

In an October 16 letter to the researchers, a Facebook executive demanded they disable a special plug-in for Chrome and Firefox browsers used by 6,500 volunteers across the United States and delete the data obtained. The plug-in lets researchers see which ads are shown to each volunteer; Facebook lets advertisers tailor ads based on specific demographics that go far beyond race, age, gender and political preference.

The executive, Allison Hendrix, said the tool violates Facebook rules prohibiting automated bulk collection of data from the site. Her letter threatened “additional enforcement action” if the takedown was not effected by Nov. 30.

Company spokesman Joe Osborne said in an emailed statement Saturday that Facebook “informed NYU months ago that moving forward with a project to scrape people’s Facebook information would violate our terms.” The company has long claimed protecting user privacy is its main concern, though NYU researchers say their tool is programmed so the data collected from participating volunteers is anonymous.

The outcry over Facebook’s threat was immediate after The Wall Street Journal first reported the news Friday considering the valuable insights the “Ad Observer” tool provides. It has been used since its September launch by local reporters from Wisconsin to Utah to Florida to write about the November 3 presidential election.

“That Facebook is trying to shut down a tool crucial to exposing disinformation in the run up to one of the most consequential elections in US history is alarming,” said Ramya Krishnan, an attorney with the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, which is representing the researchers. “The public has a right to know what political ads are being run and how they are being targeted. Facebook shouldn’t be allowed to be the gatekeeper to information necessary to safeguard our democracy. “

“The NYU Ad Observatory is the only window researchers have to see microtargeting information about political ads on Facebook,” Julia Angwin, editor of the data-centric investigative tech news website The Markup, tweeted in disappointment.

The tool lets researchers see how some Facebook advertisers use data gathered by the company to profile citizens “and send them misinformation about candidates and policies that are designed to influence or even suppress their vote,” Damon McCoy, an NYU professor involved in the project, said in a statement.

After an uproar over its lack of transparency on political ads Facebook ran ahead of the 2016 election, a sharp contrast to how ads are regulated on traditional media, the company created an ad archive that includes details such as who paid for an ad and when it ran. But Facebook does not share information about who gets served the ad.

The company has resisted allowing researchers access to the platform, where right-wing content has consistently been trending in recent weeks. Last year, more than 200 researchers signed a letter to Facebook calling on it to lift restrictions on public-interest research and journalism that would permit automated digital collection of data from the platform.

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Amazon WorkSpaces cheat sheet: What you need to know about this DaaS product

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Amazon’s Desktop as a Service product can virtualize the computing needs of your entire workforce, secure business data, and make life easier for remote employees and IT teams.

Illustration: Lisa Hornung/iStockPhoto

The modern workforce is more distributed than ever before, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only solidified the fact that working remotely is the way of the future for many businesses. That means the computing needs of modern businesses are changing as well—the perfect time for Desktop as a Service (DaaS) products like Amazon WorkSpaces to finally gain market traction.

SEE: Cloud data storage policy (TechRepublic Premium)

DaaS providers have been growing slower than expected over the past few years, but with the spread of the pandemic and the likely long-term shift to remote work, Gartner has reassessed its position on the battle between VDI and DaaS, calling DaaS one of the areas of tech experiencing the greatest growth due to the pandemic.

Because growth has been slow, many businesses may still be unaware of the advantages offered by products like Amazon WorkSpaces. Read on to learn why this new way of deploying workstations may be worth the investment, and the way of the future.  

What is Amazon WorkSpaces?

Amazon WorkSpaces is Amazon’s entry into the DaaS field and gives businesses the ability to create persistent, virtual, and cloud-hosted Windows and Linux workstations. Like other DaaS solutions, Amazon WorkSpaces is designed to scale up as businesses grow and new workstations are needed. 

Amazon describes WorkSpaces as “an easy way to provide a secure, managed, cloud-based virtual desktop experience to your end-users,” and said that its cloud-native, fully managed design means IT teams “don’t have to worry about procuring, deploying, and managing a complex environment.” 

SEE: Top cloud providers in 2020: AWS, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud, hybrid, SaaS players (ZDNet)

Amazon WorkSpaces virtual machines (VMs) can be deployed in both Linux and Windows formats and are designed to fill the role of basic end-user workstations. To fill various workstation roles, a number of different bundles are available that allocate more or less CPU power, GBs of RAM, GPUs, video memory, SSD root and user storage, and software.

IT teams can use default Windows/Linux images or create their own custom ones to ensure business-essential apps are installed on new VMs; Amazon also offers Amazon WorkSpaces Application Manager (Amazon WAM) for deploying and managing additional applications on WorkSpaces VMs. Amazon WAM packages applications into containers and makes them appear on user WorkSpaces instances as if they were locally installed, while administrators maintain the ability to manage them as containerized apps, which eliminates the need for time-consuming update, deployment, and retirement cycles. 

In terms of the security of WorkSpaces, Amazon said it uses encryption strong enough to meet HIPAA and PCI compliance through its PC-over-IP protocol, which encrypts traffic and doesn’t send any data to, or store anything sensitive on, end-user devices. User access can also be restricted via IP address, device type, or with digital certificates, and the entire system is integrated with AWS Key Management Service for encrypting storage volumes. 

SEE: Navigating data privacy (ZDNet/TechRepublic special feature) | Download the free PDF version (TechRepublic)

Credentialing for Amazon WorkSpaces access can be handled in a number of ways, including using pre-existing on-premise Microsoft Active Directory installations linked to AWS Directory Service. In that instance, users will be able to log in to their WorkSpaces instance using their existing credentials, and IT teams can apply group policy settings as usual, deploy software with existing tools, and use existing RADIUS servers to enable multifactor authentication.

On the user end, accessing an Amazon WorkSpaces VM can be done on pretty much any device imaginable: Downloadable clients exist for Windows 10, macOS, iPad, Fire tablets, Android, ChromeOS, and Linux. There’s also a web client for those who don’t want to install software, too. When a new Amazon WorkSpaces instance is provisioned for a user, they receive an email with a link to download the client (or use the web client), verify their identity, and that’s it–they’re all set to work on a virtual, managed, and secured desktop from wherever they are. 

What are use cases for Amazon WorkSpaces?

It’s not hard to see use cases for Amazon WorksSpaces almost immediately, especially in the post-COVID-19 age. The fact that remote workers can be issued an encrypted, managed, and persistent virtual machine to work from anywhere they are can be transformative. 

Amazon mentions several basic use cases on the WorkSpaces website that can be applied to any number of industries and organizations:

  • Quickly provision secure desktops for remote, mobile, and contract employees;
  • make BYOD more secure; 
  • create and scale desktops to test software on various types of simulated hardware;
  • build a standard, persistent set of machines for classroom and laboratory settings; and
  • quickly integrate new employees during a merger or acquisition.

Amazon WorkSpaces can also be used in a lot of end-user environments where it’s more advantageous to have a cloud-hosted desktop than a locally installed or personally owned one. 

Which industry compliance standards does Amazon WorkSpaces meet?

Amazon has done its part to get WorkSpaces certified for use in a variety of industries, and it currently meets the following standards

  • SOC 1,2, and 3 
  • ISO/IEC 27001:2013, 27018:2019, and 9001:2015
  • FedRAMP Moderate and High
  • DoD CC SRG IL2, IL4, and IL5 
  • IRAP 
  • MTCS 
  • C5 
  • ENS 
  • OSPAR 
  • GDPR

Since it meets those various certifications, WorkSpaces can be used for online payments, storing customer data securely in the cloud, US government and Department of Defense computing, healthcare needs, and more.

SEE: AWS Summit Online highlights (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

What are DaaS alternatives, and how much does Amazon WorkSpaces cost?

In an article about top DaaS providers, TechRepublic editor in chief Bill Detwiler gave a rundown of the biggest names in DaaS and reasons why each one would be a good choice for different types of organizations. Aside from Amazon WorkSpaces, nine DaaS providers are mentioned in his article: Citrix Managed Desktops, Cloudalize DaaS, dinCloud dinWorkspace, Evolve IP, itopia Cloud Automation Stack, Microsoft Windows Virtual Desktop, MTM Technologies AnywhereApp, and VMware Horizon Cloud.

Of the DaaS options listed above, Amazon WorkSpaces may be the most affordable choice, or at the very least the most flexible: Many DaaS providers require a minimum number of seats, longer-term commitments, or their prices are simply higher for pay-as-you-go DaaS instances. 

Amazon WorkSpaces, on the other hand, has no minimum term, and prices for a single instance start at $7.25 per month plus 17 cents per hour. 

Like any kind of new technological investment, it’s important to look at each vendor and compare features and pricing to determine what best suits your needs. Amazon WorkSpaces offers a lot of good features, but if you’re not already an AWS customer, it may be better to look at another provider, like MTM Technologies AnywhereApp, which is compatible with AWS, Azure, CenturyLink, and Oracle public clouds. Organizations already operating on Azure would be better suited to using Microsoft’s own Windows Virtual Desktop, and Google Cloud Platform users only have one option from Detwiler’s list: itopia Cloud Automation Stack.

SEE: Virtualization policy (TechRepublic Premium)

Why choose Amazon WorkSpaces over a VDI product?

In the intro to this cheat sheet, I mentioned the battle between virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) and DaaS, two completely different technologies that perform the same task: Creating virtual desktops for users to work on in place of their local machine.

VDI is not a cloud-based product–it’s the traditional virtualization product installed and operated from an organization’s data center. DaaS is VDI running on a cloud provider’s hardware. In the case of Amazon WorkSpaces, that hardware is owned and operated by Amazon Web Services. 

SEE: DaaS and VDI: New report underscores the high costs and challenges of virtual workforces (TechRepublic)

Several immediate reasons to choose Amazon WorkSpaces over a locally-installed VDI product come to mind immediately, particularly the elimination of in-house hardware dedicated to running VDIs. As organizations grow, VDI hardware may need to be scaled, it can get old and need replacing or repair, data center disasters can occur and cause downtime, and increasingly distributed workforces make managing VDIs difficult for IT teams.

DaaS solutions like Amazon WorkSpaces are just one more data center resource that can be foisted off on the cloud, freeing up space in the server room, eliminating hardware management needs, and ensuring more uptime. As COVID-19 transforms the work world into a largely remote one, DaaS solutions like Amazon WorkSpaces are becoming even more valuable for forward-looking companies that are considering permanently eliminating physical office spaces. In that kind of future, a VDI server is just one more piece of equipment that won’t have anywhere to go but the cloud.

How can I start using Amazon WorkSpaces?

It’s not too difficult to start with Amazon WorkSpaces: Interested parties will need an AWS account, basic knowledge of the AWS console in order to find the WorkSpaces section, and time to customize a WorkSpaces instance for deployment, all of which can be done in the AWS console. 

Amazon provides a helpful getting started with WorkSpaces guide on its website, which includes basic steps, starter projects, and best practices documentation. 

SEE: All of TechRepublic’s cheat sheets and smart person’s guides

How much does it cost to use Amazon WorkSpaces?

Organizations looking to enter the Amazon WorkSpaces DaaS sphere can do so free of charge using the WorkSpaces free tier, which provides two standard bundle WorkSpaces instances for up to 40 combined usage hours per month for two months. After that, the two instances are billed per hour. Educational pricing is also available for qualified Windows educational users, who will receive a discount of $3.52 per user per month, and a 3 cents per user per hour discount on hourly usage. 

Pricing varies greatly based on the type of machine, its specifications, and whether application bundles are needed. For pricing details, check out Amazon’s WorkSpaces pricing page.

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