Nature Middle East | House of Wisdom

NME’s weekly science dose (August 2-8)

When epidemiologist Diego Cuadros told fellow scientists that he was moving to Qatar, they looked at him in disbelief. What, they asked, did he hope to gain from doing research in a small Arab emirate, fabulously rich in oil and gas but with no noteworthy tradition in science?

Qatar, Saudi Arabia and UAE are all providing oases of postdoctoral opportunities for researchers from around the world, but can these institutes offer something on par with the West, or are they mere mirages? Read about the experiences of researchers who have relocated from the West to the Gulf. These centres may still not have the infrastructure of an MIT or the reputation of an Oxford, but with Qatar spending $1 billion on research and higher education each year, and with KAUST running on a $10 billion endowment, the lure of the Gulf for many researchers is starting to prove somewhat irresistible.

On a much smaller scale, exploratory attempts are being made at El-Gouna, an exclusive Egyptian resort by the Red Sea, to transform it into a scientific and research hub. The resort’s developer, Samih Sawiris, CEO of Orascom Development and one of Egypt’s richest businessmen, has single-handedly financed the establishment in El-Gouna of a branch of the prestigious German university, Technische Universität Berlin.

The campus is currently finishing up its first year now, having enrolled 29 students in October 2012 in its three applied technology postgraduate programmes: master’s degrees in water engineering, energy engineering, and urban planning. Read what Kester von Kuczkowski, its managing director, has to say about the campus’s ambitions and the challenges facing it.

Finally, in Morocco, a cigar-shaped fossil unearthed in 2012 is helping explain the origin of starfish and sea lilies. Belonging to a marine animal that lived 515 million years ago, the fossil has features that place it as a missing link between helicoplacoids, the oldest known echinoderms, and the ancestors of echinoderms such as sea lilies and starfish.

The fossil is being heralded as a discovery of exceeding importance in helping scientists understand a major transition in the history of life. Specifically: the development of pentaradial symmetry in echinoderms. More details here.

Beyond the hood

Fancy a €250,000 beef burger? No animal has been killed in the making of it. It’s not made of some vegetable-based substitute, but real beef with real muscles cells and all. Except these cell were grown in a lab, weaved together into fibres, and finally compressed into a burger.

Presenting the burger for the first time, a press conference drew curious journalists from around the world to London this week to witness this product of several years’ work being served up to taste. The two tasters seemed quite impressed with its texture and “mouth feel”, noting that it certainly felt like they were eating meat. But did it actually taste like meat?

Not so much. As the burger is made purely of muscles cells, the lack of any fat gave it a somewhat bland taste. But incorporating fat cells into the next burger is what Mark Post, the scientist behind the burger, is aiming for now. He expects that once mass produced, and presuming that the technology behind it did not advance, a kilogram of cultured beef would cost around $70.

However, the scientist hopes that cultured beef can make its way into supermarkets at a much lower price and with a much better taste in around 10 to 20 years. Currently, around 30% of the Earth’s usable surface is covered by grazing land for animals, while only 4% is being used to directly feed humans. As populations continue to grow towards 9.5 billion by 2060, this trend will become increasingly unsustainable. Beef grown in a lab, however, may provide a more environmentally viable, as well as far more humane, alternative.

You can watch the press conference and get more information here.

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