Dispatches, November 1998
Once, there was a world without velcro, devoid of Gore-Tex, and oblivious to the joy of a titanium fork. Believe it or not, people actually survived in that world. Someday, however, it'll be even harder to imagine life without the following ingenious new breakthroughs. Please hold your laughter — they're still in R&D.
Like Viagra, but for Sandstone
"I'm envisioning a legion of backpackers out there with spray cans," says Harry Kurtz. Last summer, the Texas biologist and a colleague discovered an interesting property of a photosynthetic bacterium that resides in cliffs along the Colorado Plateau. It secretes a starchy polysaccharide that acts like, well, Scotchgard for rocks, protecting sandstone from wind and rain. Why not bottle it and apply it to erosion-prone trails, thought Kurtz, who hopes to do just that after he concludes his research. "It'll be great," he says, "provided the National Park Service buys into it."
Deploy the Hairball
Alabama beautician Phillip McCrory was glued to his TV, watching an oil-soaked sea otter flounder in a pool of Exxon Valdez crude, when he was struck by an epiphany. The creature's fur seemed to be mopping up petroleum like a sponge. Would human hair do the same? To find out, McCrory stuffed a pair of his wife's nylons with clippings, tossed them into his son's wading pool, and dumped in some motor oil. Within minutes, the hair-packed hosiery had completely absorbed the viscous fluid. McCrory went to NASA with the idea, and this month they will conclude a seven-month study examining whether massive hair buffers can offer a first line of oil-spill defense. McCrory, meanwhile, has started a company to manufacture hair pillows. "I'll send you one," he offers generously, "and you can test it in your bathtub."
Up the Proverbial Creek
"We find it exciting!" says Debra Windish, spokesperson for the Michigan-based biotech firm MBI. "It turns sewage into pure water." The "it" in question is the aptly named Shewanella putrefaciens, a bacterium, discovered last summer by microbiologists at the Korean Institute of Science and Technology, that in the process of digesting wastewater generates minute electrical currents. Titillating stuff for the folks at MBI and their Korean partners, who eventually hope to build sewage treatment plants in which armies of feculence-scarfing microbes not only scrub the water, but also power the facilities' filters, pumps, and generators. Before that happens, however, a few crucial experiments remain. "We haven't actually tested this on feces yet," concedes lead researcher Dyung Hong Kim. "I doubt my colleagues would be too happy to have that material in the lab."