With our slower pace and small-town vibe, you'd think we'd have a tough time attracting movers and shakers — the type of folks who thrive on a high-stakes gamble, who relish cutthroat competition, who chase muses that never sleep. But good ideas take time. Like great novels and unforgettable paintings, they are born from a daydreamer's mind and a tinkerer's hands.
For our second annual issue focusing on innovations, we picked around for breakthroughs from 11 such tinkering tortoises seduced by Middle Tennessee's fertile landscape — local individuals or groups who've spent the last several years toiling to improve and innovate in fields as diverse as recording and medicine. Sometimes, the ideas came easily and were instantly embraced, like Charlie Chadwick's folding bass, a solution to a common travel nightmare for musicians. Others were the result of years of meticulous revision and faced a chorus of skeptics, such as Chris Estes' device bridging communication between ProTools and analog tape machines. In between, we stumbled across life-saving cures for rare diseases, accidental discoveries with previously unthinkable applications, and bighearted, community-sponsored programs.
But across all industries, what all these 11 fastidious thinkers share is the spirit of improvisation and innovation: They incubate while others rush ahead. They ponder while others interject. They solve where others merely sigh. In some ways, tracking them down is a feat in itself — a recent study shows that, compared to other similar cities, Nashvillians are loathe to pursue the very patents that could legitimize their endeavors. But we choose not to see that as a tragic flaw. To us, it just shows that, when it comes to improving the world, we're more concerned with getting it right than getting noticed.
Sometimes, it takes a lot of green to go green. Consider hybrid cars: This socially progressive purchase will certainly reduce your carbon footprint, but with a heftier price tag on even the cheapest model available, they're still an expensive way to save on gas for most folks.
But what if you didn't have to ditch your gas-guzzler to enviro-cize it? Dr. Charles Perry may have solved that conundrum with his plug-in hybrid retrofit kit, a device that turns your gasoline car into a hybrid with minimal intervention, effectively doubling your gas mileage in the process.
It was the height of the gas-price skyrocket a few years ago when Perry, an engineer who'd moved to Murfreesboro in 2004 to teach at MTSU, was approached by his eldest daughter with a problem. With a young family on a budget, she and her husband were struggling to keep up with prices nearing $3 a gallon.
"She said, 'Daddy, why don't you invent a way for us to get better gas mileage?' " Perry recalls. With 28 years experience as a mechanical and electrical engineer at IBM and some 40 process and manufacturing patents under his belt, he had the talents to meet his daughter's challenge.
"I wondered, well wouldn't it be neat to turn any car into a hybrid without any major mechanical modification?" he recalls. There were two main challenges: where to put the electric motor, and how to do so with a minimal amount of weight.
He wasn't the first person to tackle this problem. Other designers working on retrofit kits had tried interrupting the drive shaft or installing an external motor through the lug nuts. But Perry and his team didn't think those solutions were elegant or lightweight enough.
Instead, he and co-inventor Paul Martin III, along with Chong Chen, Richard Redditt, Rick Taylor and students Chris Stocker and Alex Kirchhoff, devised a simpler solution: using the space between the brakes and the inner diameter of the wheel hub to install electric motors, effectively turning the rear wheels into motors. The batteries that power them — made of a low-lead acid, since lithium is still too expensive — are stored in the trunk. In the end, it adds some 5 pounds of extra un-sprung weight to each of the car's rear wheels.
"That's a little more than you'd want, but this isn't for a sports car," says Perry, whose prototypes will be installed on the 2005 Chevy Impala, the most common car in the state of Tennessee fleet, to cull data. Ultimately, Perry and his team are targeting average city commuters on an average day, cab drivers or people like his daughter — that 80 percent of drivers who travel under 40 mph, mostly on city streets. At 45 mph, the system shuts off. "This is just powerful enough to propel you around town," he says, adding that, for someone like his daughter driving a Honda minivan, her current 16 or 17 mpg could turn into 30 mpg.
That was enough for Tennessee Technology Development Corporation, who awarded Perry and his team $50,000 in grant money to keep at it, with Palmer Labs out of Virginia matching that figure. The plug-in hybrid's patent —which Perry spent two years developing and writing — is still pending, but Perry expects manufacturing to begin in September 2011.
But what about the price? Consumers can expect to shell out around $3,000 — a recoupable investment for any car with at least five years of life left in her. In the end, it's a small price to pay for a little wheel tweaking that helps the environment and doubles fuel economy. And you can still drive the car you love, at least until the wheels come off.
Josh Denny and his colleagues at Vanderbilt aren't interested in mapping the genetic code. That's been done — the map's been drawn. They want to understand what the map is trying to say — and how the map can save lives.
Denny is part of the team at Vandy's Biomedical Language Processing Lab which has developed a new system — known as PheWAS — for helping find the links between genes and diseases. PheWAS is short for "phenome-wide association scan" and has been described as groundbreaking by scholars worldwide in the fast-developing field of medical informatics.
"Every life tells a story," Denny says. "There's tons of variants we all have that predict risk for diseases."
Identifying those risks is what PheWAS hopes to do. Data-mining de-identified electronic medical records and cross-referencing that with the gigantic BioVU — a depository of genetic information from discarded blood samples, also with patient identities removed — provides a sort of cheat sheet to predicting a patient's predilection for certain ailments.
What the system creates is essentially a massive clinical trial — without all the pesky problems of recruiting test subjects. In studying the gene-disease link, the methodology is pretty simple.
"You take the people with a disease and the people who don't, looking for common variants and mutations," Denny said. But PheWAS is a more comprehensive approach. By focusing on phenomes — in this case, that's a set of all diseases a person has — the PheWAS folks take a broad view.
"We're not just saying let's look at one disease," Denny says. "Let's see all the diseases."
For geneticists, clinicians and medical informatics experts, this is exciting stuff. But for Joe Q. Patient, the good news is this: Eventually your doctor will be able to tell if you are going to be afflicted by certain diseases — Huntington's disease, cystic fibrosis, coronary artery disease, diabetes — long before you ever exhibit a single symptom.
"We could know you have it before you have it. We aren't not going to find it until it's too late," Denny says.
And because of other studies using PheWAS — which can be done far more cheaply than a normal clinical trial — your doctor will be able to prescribe preventative medication at a far earlier stage.
The system, which operates on data built up since the early '90s, is unique to Nashville. And at this stage, it's still expensive, says Denny. But identifying risks earlier means a greater likelihood of managing or combating disease well before it robs and debilitates. It's the stuff of science fiction. Or as Denny puts it: "This is a vision of health care for the 21st century."
What parent doesn't worry at some point about the amount of time their kids spend in front of a screen — whether it's the faint glow of an iPhone, the glare of a computer monitor or the white light of TV? Thanks to a partnership between the city's independent arthouse and a Nashville public school, though, students could be making that screen time count, by doing anything from learning the basics of visual storytelling from guest speakers to watching a subtitled film for the first time.
In June, The Belcourt was one of 80 local businesses to partner with a program sponsored by Metro Nashville Public Schools. Called The Academies of Nashville, it had its origin in a 2006 push by Nashville high school principals to explore converting their schools to "small learning communities" — an educational model that favors school-within-a-school units, with an emphasis on the real-world application of studies.
Armed with a $6 million federal planning grant, schools across the city have been laying the groundwork for these academies, using career groupings that include engineering, manufacturing and industrial technology; hospitality and tourism; and health. The schools team up with businesses and organizations that can show students solid, inspiring and practical reasons why they should be tuning in math and science instead of zoning out with the Xbox.
By partnering with The Belcourt, among other area businesses, Antioch High School hopes to show students a variety of career paths they might never have considered before. And in exchange, The Belcourt may be building its future audience by exposing kids to foreign films and classics.
The Nashville Chamber of Commerce is one of the forces behind the program, reasoning that today's teens are tomorrow's start-up entrepreneurs and high-skilled workforce. Marc Hill, the chamber's chief education officer, takes care to say The Academies are not a gussied-up name for vocational school.
"The benefit for Nashville," he says, "is that students will stay in school, achieve at higher levels, and get a better idea of what they're interested in after high school."
The Belcourt's emphasis at Antioch will be in the arts, media and communications. Ten years ago, that might have just meant plonking down an English class in front of Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet. But Belcourt managing director Stephanie Silverman says that's exactly what she hopes to avoid. Her inspiration is the Jacob Burns Arts Center in Pleasantville, N.Y., a nationally recognized independent theater that's developed a media lab offering a variety of classes in everything from animation to film history.
"I see kids making films with their cameras all the time, and I know how incredibly appealing visual storytelling is to them," Silverman says. Maybe there'll be new meaning for the old phrase "watch and learn."
Launched in April of 2009, Kickstarter allows artists — filmmakers, musicians, performance artists, and more — to use a process known as crowd funding to raise proceeds for their respective projects. Think of it like a bake sale for creative types, only they're hawking self-made EPs and films instead of brownies. Artists select their own monetary goal and deadline, and if their target minimum isn't met in time, money pledged by donors is never collected and the project is scrapped. This means if you're the only person to make a pledge on behalf of your indolent nephew's crappy art film, you get your 50 bones back.
It isn't a local invention, but savvy local artists have quickly stormed the online funding platform, particularly when it comes to music, and Nashvillians are now among the most effective and resourceful of its users. Homegrown acts like Heartbeater, Heypenny, The Zut Alors, The Armed Forces and Judd and Maggie have all tapped their supporters in Music City for the funds to record and release EPs, records and 7-inches.
It's in step with a national creative trend: Artists must forge ahead in uncertain times, fans in tow — with or without an industry that's proving more and more that it rarely knows what to do with them anyway. And, with fewer record labels — even the small ones — scouting acts at showcases, band battles and dive bars, artists are pressed to build the fanbase well before stumping for that label handout, should they want it. Kickstarter allows self-promoting types to solicit and seduce all at once, all the while lessening their dependence on an industry that's bound to fail them. The aforementioned acts have not only met their goals, they've exceeded them — Heypenny by 47 percent, Judd and Maggie by 23 percent and Heartbeater by 18 percent.
But perhaps the most novel part of the Kickstarter design is the one-of-a-kind perks bands are able to offer fans in return. On their campaign pages, artists include tiered pledge gifts, not unlike a public-television telethon. Only, instead of some wack duffel bag, most bands offer prizes like a complimentary copy of the forthcoming record, a phone call from the band, or, in some cases, even a private performance. Kickstarter takes 5 percent of each successful project's collected funds, but retains no ownership rights to any of the projects — failed or successful — after their completion. Kickstarter wins, the artists win, the fans win — the only one left standing in the dust is the rest of the music industry. For more info, visit kickstarter.com.
—D. Patrick Rodgers
Any serious disease will typically provide its sufferers with such heavy doses of insult and injury as to cause an irresistible urge to spit at churches. Ménétrier's disease is no different, but it certainly sounds like a particularly evil blend of both.
The injury: an affliction that causes an enlargement of the stomach lining. Its symptoms: a severe decrease in gastric acid production; severe, painful swelling of the hands and feet; constant nausea and vomiting as much as 10 times a day; and, ultimately, a significantly increased risk of stomach cancer.
The insult: It's so rare — there are only about 500 documented cases since it was first discovered — that if you have it, you're likely the only person you know who has it. The only effective treatment is total removal of the stomach.
But that part may soon change, owing to the research of a team of scientists at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center who've discovered unprecedented success treating it with an anticancer drug called cetuximab, marketed under the name Erbitux.
Dr. Robert Coffey, who heads up the team, met his first Ménétrier's patient in 1998. "[A colleague from UT-Southwestern in Dallas] called up and said that he had a patient who clearly had Menetrier's disease, and was vomiting 70 times a week, but was not a surgical candidate," Coffey says. The 48-year-old man had been given a number of treatments for his symptoms, but none of them had worked.
Coffey, who came to Ménétrier's after more than a decade of research into transforming growth factor in the stomach—which, he discovered, acted in many of the same ways as Ménétrier's, and had the same physiological cause (binding to the epidermal growth factor receptor, an explanation of which is beyond this writer). He asked the FDA for approval for use of the cetuximab, which, blocked the EGF receptor and reduced Ménétrier's growth.
"Within a matter of hours of the first treatment, he felt like a new man," Coffey says. "He no longer felt nauseated. He no longer vomited. He felt almost back to normal."
The trial lasted for one month. "He felt so good that he went back to UT Southwestern with plans of having a heart and lung transplant," Coffey says. However, in an incident unrelated to Ménétrier's or the treatment, he died before that surgery.
Still, the trial proved so successful that Coffey got approval for another one. It took him nearly a decade to find nine qualified patients, but in all of the seven patients who completed the one-month trial, the results proved just as successful as the first patient's.
Three of them no longer require treatment and one is entirely cured, Coffey says. Now he's beginning work on another clinical trial, which he hopes will eventually lead to full or partial FDA approval. That would mean the treatment would be covered by many insurers, which would help since the drug is prohibitively expensive.
"It costs about $100,000 per year for this treatment, so we are hoping for that."
If necessity is the mother of invention, frustration is invention's favorite aunt. Just ask Charlie Chadwick, the man behind the Chadwick Folding Bass, a full-size upright that can be disassembled for ease of travel.
A veteran upright bassist, Chadwick — who's toured with Pam Tillis, Suzy Bogguss, Crystal Gayle and David Lee Roth — has become a reluctant expert on the pitfalls of traveling with the extremely bulky instrument. Encased, it'll set you back an extra $75 to $100 for each flight of a tour, not to mention the headache of trying to find a cab or van big enough to transport it. You could always rent or borrow basses for your gigs instead — and Chadwick knows what a headache that can be, too. Case in point: on tour with Shelby Lynne in 2003.
"She wanted upright, and there was no way we could fly with it," Chadwick recalls. "So we were playing The Tonight Show, and they had the worst bass you can imagine. I mean, in L.A. — you can't find a decent bass? I was appalled. I'm playing for the largest audience in my life — I think 30 million people tune in — and I'm playing this piece of junk."
After perfecting the design on his beat-up prototype, he found himself a nice Chinese-made Sam Shen plywood bass, Chadwick-ized it, and hit the road with a great-looking and -sounding instrument. Then, at the January 2007 NAMM music trade show, he had a chance meeting with Shen himself. Shen was so impressed with the design that he agreed to supply Chadwick with unassembled bass parts — no more need to chop up instruments.
The Chadwick Folding Bass requires no tools, weighs under 50 pounds with the case, and can be assembled or torn down in under two minutes. A padded gig bag, which can be used alone, provides the cushioning in the hard case. Chadwick still assembles the instruments himself, so he can set them up according to the buyer's preferences, and those buyers are some of today's top players, including Barry Bales (Alison Krauss), Morgan Jahnig (Old Crow Medicine Show), Charles R. Humphrey III (Steep Canyon Rangers) and bluegrass bass legend Mike Bub, to name a few.
With a retail price of $3,599, it's no drop in the bass case, but given the money it saves in eliminated surcharges at most baggage counters — a huge deal for touring bassists, who can rack up thousands annually in such expenses — upright players can now do something most musicians dream of: recoup. For information, visit www.foldingbass.com.
Think of it as an omniscient, Orwellian gossip tool, from God's eye to your computer screen: Wanna know which one of your neighbors is a rabble-rousing drunk-tank regular who got picked up over the weekend for public intox? Or whether the social X-ray next door rolled the dice one too many times with that suspended license? The Davidson County Criminal Court Clerk's new arrest map data system is public shame — writ digital. Simply plug your zip code into the entry field and watch red arrest markers multiply like chigger bites. This isn't Metro PD's crime mapping system — the markers indicate the location of the arrestee's given address.
"The people we talked to were more concerned with who the people are who live next to them than they were with where the crime occurred," says Tommy Bradley, chief administrative officer of the Criminal Court Clerk.
Place the cursor over a marker and a name pops up, along with the crime for which they're accused and the street address given to police. In this regard, it's a novel approach, focusing on where the arrestee lives instead of where the alleged crime occurred. Only a few months old now, the system has already garnered the court a nomination for a Justice Achievement Award from the National Association for Court Management.
It looks like Google Maps, but the program, created on a shoestring at no cost aside from the time spent by employees of the criminal court clerk's office, uses a free longitude-latitude mapping system developed by the University of Southern California. It taps directly into the Metro Criminal Court Clerk database, allowing the user to also view the arrest affidavit and a criminal history of the arrestee, if one exists. "We try to be someone who sets the standard for open records and how much information we put up on the site," Bradley says.
To keep the map from turning into a carpet of red markers, though, only arrests within the past week will appear. And if you're worried this looks like scattershot information dysentery, worry not — some restraint is shown. The system blocks access to simple citations that often contain sensitive information like Social Security numbers, for instance, along with incidents involving minors. So the information stays safe, whether or not the same can be said for your neighborhood.
A driving philosophy in today's culinary world is the use of fresh, local ingredients. Chefs devote untold resources to finding local farmers who can supply fresh produce in just-so quantities, and there's a long tradition of chefs supplementing their ingredients with small kitchen gardens where they grow herbs or tomatoes. Recently, at least two Nashville restaurants have taken that idea to the next level, actually carving out an acre of two of land to farm themselves, cultivating the earth and growing the heirloom veggies that enchant and inspire them.
Recently, the Capitol Grille at the Hermitage Hotel announced a unique partnership with the historic Glen Leven estate (owned by the nonprofit Land Trust for Tennessee). Chef Tyler Brown, looking a lot more John Deere than James Beard in a gimme cap and overalls, eagerly showed reporters the cherished potatoes and beets he was cultivating from the acre of land he's taken on there. (In addition, the hotel has given guests the option of donating $2 per night to the Land Trust, raising $100,000 for the organization, which buys land to preserve the state's natural beauty and heritage.)
Meanwhile, Mediterranean French-inspired bistro Miel in Sylvan Park has been running a 1.3-acre farm along the Cumberland, about 10 minutes from the restaurant, since May 2009. Restaurateur Seema Prasad doesn't own the land (it belongs to her friend Sylvia Ganier of Green Door Gourmet), but she tends it herself.
"We still buy from local farms, but this allows us to have more unique produce and have it even fresher," Prasad says. "There's something really cool about being able to pick it that morning, wash it and serve it that night."
Any surplus crops are sold either to Sylvan Park shop The Produce Place or at the West Nashville Farmers' Market on Saturday mornings, where Miel also sells takeout items like homemade rolls and granola.
"I can go out to the farm in the morning and use my phone to take a picture of what's there and send it to Freddy Brooker, our chef, or Barry at the Produce Place," she says. They take their planning from there.
Prasad says she runs the farm in a sustainable way, without pesticides or herbicides. She composts all the food waste from the restaurant except onions, because she hasn't been able to find organic onions and doesn't want to risk introducing chemicals into the soil her veggies sprout from.
She says she's had a blast selecting heirloom varieties to grow, including nine different kinds of carrots, and chioggia beets that she harvests at a much smaller size than she can find anywhere else.
But farm work isn't all gravy. After a successful crop last year, Prasad planted even more this spring. It all got washed away in May's record flood. After spending weeks cleaning up the land, they did a second planting. But only half of that came up, possibly due to additional rain moving the seeds around. So they did a third. "We've just got some starts in," she says. "White and blue pumpkins and these beautiful little French melons."
But despite the frustrations of farming, Prasad says it's all very satisfying. "We sell some of our produce, we save seeds. It doesn't make a lot of money, but it makes what we do so much more fun."
—Dana Kopp Franklin
What if there was a program that reduced traffic, instilled confidence and leadership in at-risk kids and moved our city — even if slightly — toward a more sustainable future? Around Nashville, scores of young people rely so heavily on adults to drive them from place to place that they don't really know any other way to get around. And they end up missing a lot as a result — exercise, for one, but also the opportunity to become more independent, and to really experience their surroundings, rather than just cruising past them. Enter the Halcyon Bike Workshop, a partnership between Oasis Center, the nonprofit community center in Watkins Park, and Halcyon Bike Shop in 12South. Together, they put broken bikes in the hands of underprivileged kids and get them to fixing.
But the workshop doesn't just teach kids how to build and repair the bicycles — it asks them to pass their knowledge along to others in their community and sends them home with their own bike once they've completed the program.
Asked how he got the idea for the workshop, Daniel Furbish of Oasis Center says, "I was simply a bicycle enthusiast who happened to work with youth. ... I took a group of my middle school students to Shelby Park, and half of them, although they all live within a two-mile radius, had never been there. They didn't even know it existed." So he started researching bike co-ops, then found out there was a new bike shop in town looking to partner with a local nonprofit. The timing was perfect.
"Yeah, it was pretty serendipitous," says Elise Tyler, co-owner of Halcyon, whose mechanics — including crankhead and local musician Seth Murray, who designed the first course syllabus — donate their time. The workshop was modeled after similar programs in Austin and Portland, with the added twist of open workshop hours, when students can come in and work on their own. The bikes themselves are donated, and the workshop is funded through a grant. Just a year and two months after starting, it's already paying dividends.
"We have run into workshop graduates on several occasions who have told us that they helped fix their little sister's flat tire, or tightened a friend's stem when it got loose," Furbish says. "What makes this special is that their average age is 13, and they are taking on the role of a teacher/mentor."
Furbish says they're looking to start a new mobile workshop that will travel to different community centers and libraries throughout the week, and beyond that, Tyler says, to grow it for all age groups. In the meantime, Nashville's youth are finding a new way to get around town.
"We hand them a Nashville bike map and say, 'Here's how to get from your house to Shelby Park,' " says Furbish. " 'Make sure you wear your helmet.' "
Note to all audio engineers: Hope you held onto your tape machines, because as they languished in garages around the country as digital advancements won the day, Nashville engineer, producer and musician Chris Estes was scheming to make them relevant again. Two patents issued last month are proof he may have just blown the dust off a nearly extinct breed of deteriorating gear.
His invention: the CLASP system, short for Closed Loop Analog Signal Processing, or a fancy way of saying that he figured out how to make the predictable but clinical Pro Tools and the unreliable yet thrilling vintage tape play nice. Previously, merging the two in the studio was a lot like Elizabeth Taylor and men — a big hit in theory, but incredibly time-consuming and tedious in real life, and almost always regrettable.
Many studio folk consider two-inch tape the recording medium of the gods, but when Pro Tools took hold in the early '90s, it bewitched with its more efficient, dependable and cost-effective appeal. In short, it made analog look like your grandpa's way of doing things. But music aficionados still mourn the loss of analog's more honest sound, in spite of its high-maintenance reputation.
CLASP, which Estes spent some five years finessing, not only promises all the benefits of analog's pleasing electromagnetic charm, but throws in digital's speed and ease of use. Plus, it extends the working life of tape, now in shorter supply with only two manufacturers worldwide and a price tag of $289 a reel.
"With CLASP, tape is no longer linear or destructive," Estes says. "You're not actually storing on it. It's just used as the medium."
With tape as the puppet and digital as the master, it's the best of both worlds. And it couldn't come at a better time: Artists like Jack White still champion analog's superior sound, and vinyl sales just jumped 33 percent in 2009 from the previous year, proof that just when you thought the analog vs. digital debate had exhaled its dying breath, it's been resurrected.
Estes already has a number of marquee clients, with the likes of Lenny Kravitz using the system in his Gregory Town Sound studio, Taylor Swift producer Nathan Chapman and Neil Young producer Niko Bolas on board, and a few dozen clients on the coasts and overseas.
It's been adopted by a handful of Nashville producers, but CLASP has been met with skepticism and befuddlement from some locals. Perhaps Music Row — itself slow to embrace Pro Tools once — is now so devoted to digital that it isn't sure if there's enough room for both formats in town. Not so with engineer Brian Kolb.
"It's a dream," Kolb said on a recent visit to studio The Mix Dream, owned by producer Dave Brainard, where Kolb was in the midst of recording Ray Scott, a country crooner coming off a Warner Bros. debut. Kolb's been recording in Nashville for a decade, using Pro Tools for eight of those years, and can recently boast the mixing credit for Jerrod Neimann's third studio album Judge Jerrod & the Hung Jury, which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard last month.
"We were cutting at Ocean Way, and our drummer came in, who's one of the best in the world," Kolb recalls. "And he smiled when he saw the tape machine and said, 'I'm gonna have to play good today, aren't I?' And I said, 'Well, of course you are, but we can still punch,' " he says, referring to the process where the artist re-records a specific part of a take. With tape, when you punch, you lose the previous version, for better or worse. With CLASP, you can record a new take (or portion thereof) while preserving the old one, and you have the freedom to do it over and over. "He said, 'Really?' And the other guys were just like, 'What?' We still had all the benefits of tape, but we weren't confined to it. We could still try things."
Kolb figures Nashville's resistance is fear of trying something new. Or maybe they just can't understand how the thing works — Estes' patents were initially rejected twice by the patent office; it took an in-person demonstration in D.C. for them to understand that he wasn't just creating a new tape machine.
"A world-class engineer at a studio took me out in the hallway and argued with me for half an hour saying it was physically impossible," Estes recalls. "He said I must have invented the flux capacitor for this to work."
That's because the real trick of Estes' innovation is time stamp manipulation of each digital audio file. Just don't ask what that means unless you want a lesson in engineering, physics and a little time travel.
A demonstration from Estes with an acoustic performance by Ray Scott had Scott's voice, a mischievous baritone, go from Randy Travis to Johnny Cash with the flip of a switch. Or as Scott puts it, "All I know is he makes me sound better. Digital stuff slams, but it loses all the feeling." Lucky for him, he'll never have to choose between the two again.
To paraphrase Kermit, it's not easy being a frog. As an amphibian, you've got tender, porous skin that's at the mercy of every microbe and toxin you encounter as you splash about in your environment, whether it's a scummy pond, a rotten tree stump or a drainage ditch near a human subdivision.
But frogs have evolved some pretty elegant defenses over the millions of years of their existence. In particular, their skin excretes molecules called peptides that keep microbial invaders at bay. Unfortunately, these haven't protected frog populations around the world from a sudden collapse. In the process of studying what evil element is slipping through the web of frogs' immune system, some scientists have discovered peptides that appear to destroy one of the scourges of human health around the world — the HIV virus.
A few years ago, Vanderbilt biologist Louise Rollins-Smith, who studies frog immunity, was talking with her colleague Derya Unatmaz (now at New York University), who studies viruses. They began to wonder whether frogs' potent peptides might be effective against HIV. Scott VanCompernolle, then a scientist in Rollins-Smith's lab, worked with collaborators in Australia to collect a variety of peptides from Australian frogs.
The experiment wasn't complicated, Rollins-Smith says, just a matter of combining a batch of peptides, the virus and the kind of cells the virus typically targets (in this case, human T-lymphocyte cells). "Then you measure the amount of virus that comes out the other end," she says. To their surprise, the frog peptides appeared to be highly effective at keeping the virus from infecting the human cells.
Rollins-Smith and her team, including Patricia Smith, have continued to refine the research, figuring out which peptides are most potent against the virus but also gentle to human cells. Potentially, the peptides hold promise as an antimicrobial product that could be used vaginally.
"Other people who have tried antimicrobials against HIV have not been successful," Rollins-Smith says. "Peptides are natural compounds, better perhaps than the more toxic substances that are being used as antimicrobials." And studies indicate the peptides zap sperm as well as viruses, which points to a potential usage as a spermicide. Rollins-Smith says the current substance in use, nonoxynal-9, "is incredibly toxic to cells."
Recently, her high school intern, Hana Erkou from the Nashville School of the Arts and the School for Science and Math at Vanderbilt, tested whether frog peptides would interfere with the beneficial bacteria found in the human vagina — the lactobacilli that crowd out fungus and bacterial pathogens. Erkou (now a student at the University of Chicago) discovered it doesn't.
Clinical studies aren't yet under way, but all this leans optimistically toward the idea that someday a substance provided by frogs may lead to a big leap in human health and well-being. As for the frogs? It appears a vile fungus is a major culprit behind their decline. As scientists work frantically to understand the pandemic, perhaps someday we can return the favor.
—Dana Kopp Franklin
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