Professional thinker-about-the-future Ray Kurzweil describes a moment he calls "the Singularity," a point where technology goes literally beyond our wildest dreams — so much so that we can't even imagine what is possible. Here in Middle Tennessee, we might not have arrived at that point on the timeline just yet, but electrode-activated prosthetic legs and atomic mosquito repellant — both developed right here in Nashville — are helping push the boundaries of what we can do. And they are but two of the forward-thinking projects we present here, in our third annual Innovations issue, where we train our scopes on the ingenious, the progressive and the unexpected. Of course, sometimes it takes looking backward to move ahead, so while one Vanderbilt scientist bellies through ancient caves in search of organisms that could be used to create cutting-edge medicines, a team of chefs has decided to cook right in front of their guests — stripping away all the trappings of "progress" in restaurants. In between there's a motorized record shop, a social media widget for notable quotes, an environmentally savvy street plan, a website that makes music licensing a snap and a mixed-use development that is more than meets the ear. Who knows — maybe you'll read about something you couldn't even imagine was possible five minutes ago.
1. Digging for Drugs: Cave Chemistry
Hundreds of feet beneath the earth's surface, organisms that never see the light of day engage in never-ending battle for food and territory. As weapons, they've evolved their own microscopic systems of chemical warfare — substances that can destroy predators or vanquish prey. To Brian Bachmann, associate professor of chemistry at Vanderbilt, these arsenals could play a part in defeating another foe: cancer.
Or malaria. Or other diseases — the reasoning behind what may be the only medical research team in the world that literally plumbs the earth's depths searching for new treatments. A longtime caver whose interest dates back to his college days at Virginia Tech and Johns Hopkins, Bachmann is one of the leaders of a group of Vanderbilt chemists who gather samples of cave-dwelling organisms, in hopes that the unique compounds they produce can be harnessed for modern medicine.
With guidance from noted Middle Tennessee caver John Hickman, Bachmann and his assistants have begun to explore the microbial riches of Tennessee's more than 9,600 caves. Taking care to preserve each ecosystem, which has flourished underground for millions of years, the researchers walk, scoot and rappel into a literal underworld with no way to communicate above ground. Asked what safety precautions the team takes in such circumstances, the lanky Bachmann, boyish and bespectacled, just laughs.
"First, tell people you're going," Bachmann says. "Second, tell them when you plan to be back. Then take an expert who knows the cave."
Before pharmaceutical labs were able to generate synthetic chemical compounds by the thousands, what's known as "natural product drug discovery" was responsible for life-changing advances in medicine, such as penicillin. Some 75 percent of all antibiotics are derived from natural products. And yet, even though synthetic compounds sometimes may lack the molecular complexity that helps a treatment find its target, natural-product discovery has fallen out of favor — largely because of the time and expense involved. If he finds a novel drug in his research, Bachmann says, it will take at the very least a decade of development and testing and up to hundreds of millions of dollars before it reaches the market.
But the hypercompetitive world of cave dwellers increases the chances of finding a compound of interest. The fight for food never lets up in cave systems, Bachmann says, and because microbes can produce successive generations so rapidly, they can evolve quickly in response to new threats. Even though some of the cave organisms he's studied have never seen the earth's surface, Bachmann says they've proved resistant to currently prescribed antibiotics.
"They have an innate ability to chew up drugs," he says.
The caving is part of his research that everybody finds fascinating, Bachmann says, but "the really exciting work" is being done by co-investigator John McLean at a facility on the Vanderbilt campus that looks like Goldfinger's lair. There, McLean and his team attempt to identify novel molecular compounds from the soupy cultures grown in the team's research labs. In a device called a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer, which resembles a lunar capsule, a needle-thin tube containing samples travels down a one-story column of air to be assessed, surrounded by electromagnets so powerful their range is measured on the floor in blue linoleum as a warning.
"Don't step in the blue zone," Bachmann cautions, "or it might erase your credit card." JIM RIDLEY
2. Front of the House: The Catbird Seat
Chefs cook for many reasons: for money, for praise, for pride, for art's sake, for the possibility of getting their own show on cable television. But one of the oldest motivations for cooking is to see the look of pleasure on the face of the person eating the food you just made. And yet, somewhere in the evolution of fine dining, thickets of hierarchy sprang up between the chef and the diner.
So of all the things that are unique about The Catbird Seat — the new project that restaurateur brothers Ben and Max Goldberg plan to open this fall — the direct interface between chef and customer is probably the most intriguing.
The Catbird Seat is small — just 30 seats around a U-shaped bar in a little dining room atop the Goldbergs' chic cocktail bungalow, Patterson House. Two co-chefs will work inside the improbably small space in the center of the U, cooking on a tiny kitchen island and serving dishes directly to the diners seated around them.
Since customers will be taking a leap of faith with the seven-course fixed-price menu, the Goldbergs have recruited two hugely accomplished chefs to man the little kitchen: Josh Habiger and Erik Anderson.
The two chefs met while cooking at Alinea in Chicago (proclaimed "the best restaurant in North America" on the 2011 San Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants list) and later worked together at Porter & Frye in Minneapolis. Both have cooked in high-status, highly stratified kitchens around the world, but Habiger says it was a real eye-opener when he took a detour from the kitchen side to tend bar in the early days of Patterson House.
"As a chef, you can make something, and someone else will bring it out ... and the rest of the experience happens in the front of the house — and the chef's in the back of the house," he says. "As a bartender, we could put something in front of someone ourselves and watch them taste it and see their initial reaction. ... So the beauty of The Catbird Seat is we're making eye contact with every person that comes in."
Anderson puts it this way: "There's no barrier. There's no buffer zone. It's cool because you get the reaction right away."
But what about reactions that aren't positive? "For better or worse, I'm sure there's going to be people who don't respond positively to every single thing we put in front of them," Habiger says. "But we can then resolve that situation instantly and make another dish for that person, or make it again omitting one of the ingredients or whatever we need to do to make that person happy."
Happiness, communication, mutual satisfaction? Sounds at odds with popular restaurant reality shows, where chefs dispense pungent verbal abuse more liberally than lardons in a frisée salad. "That's so over," Habiger says. "The screaming chef is over." DANA KOPP FRANKLIN
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