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What Happens When An Artist Thinks Like a Scientist? Better Chicken
The chicken you eat comes from birds that only live for 5 years and are susceptible to disease and inbreeding. Thank goodness Koen Vanmechelen bred a better one.
Sometimes it takes an artist to show scientists what they’ve been missing.
Koen Vanmechelen is that artist. For the last 20 years he’s bred his own chickens as part of the Cosmopolitan Chicken Project (CCP). That might seem strange to you and me, but not to Koen. He mixes DNA the way other artists mix colors, and uses his chickens to demonstrate cultural and genetic diversity. Besides, chickens are one of the most common animals on the planet. There are 65 million of them. They produce 60 million tons of eggs that we use for everything from food to medicine production. That makes chickens “the most important animal in the world,” to Koen, as he told me over Skype. They never fail to surprise him: “Chickens are like a mirror for human culture,” he said. And he’s right.
That’s also why they’re in so many historical paintings. Wall painting at the Boulevard Saint Laurent, Montreal, Quebec Province, Canada, North America. Credit: Guenther Schwermer/GettyImages
Like humans, chickens are descended from a single species. The ancestor of the vast majority of the world’s chickens is the Red Junglefowl, which lives at the foot of the Himalayan mountains. From that one chicken came hundreds of different kinds, each uniquely adapted to their local environments and “reflecting the cultural characteristics of their regions and communities,” as the CCP site puts it. It’s a beautiful example of diversity.
But there’s a dark side to that much localization: genetic inbreeding, which we also see in humans. Over time, gene pools within highly localized, isolated communities become too narrow to sustain, rendering the population infertile. “Diversity is at the root of health,” geneticist Olivier Hanotte explained to me over Skype. “Genetically speaking, we know it’s bad to be inbred.” Particularly when chickens have been bred based on their productivity and efficiency.
In order to counter that effect and reverse the cycle of genetic erosion, Koen crossbred chickens from different countries to increase their genetic diversity and resilience to disease. He chose a different breed every year to demonstrate that “if we find combinations, then we make evolution,” as he told me.
He’s right about that, too.
The genetic crossbreeds of the Cosmopolitan Chicken Project. Credit: CCP
Each successive generation of chickens was more resilient than its parents. “The chickens lived longer, were less susceptible to disease, and exhibited less aggressive behavior,” the CCP site reports. “Chickens from industry have 4 million bits of genetic code,” Koen told me “My chickens have 40 million. In my 19th generation chickens, the fertility tripled from 30-90%. Their [genetic] diversity increased enormously.” He admitted that the chickens’ “immunity is difficult to prove” but their lifespans have also increased: “now my chickens live for 15 instead of 5 years.”
All of those benefits have been backed up scientifically. “Using SNP genotyping and whole genome sequencing, it has been proven that the CCP shows significantly higher diversity compared to purebred chicken and remarkable increased potential for gene transcription and expression,” the CCP site reports.
Encouraging as that is, that genetic diversity hasn’t been tested in the real world -- and that’s where Olivier comes in. Olivier found Koen via a Google search and was immediately intrigued by him and his project. “Koen is thinking as a scientist,” he told me. “He wanted to reconstruct the entire diversity of domestic diversity. Despite his training, he is actually thinking as a scientist. As an artist, he can actually do things that we can only imagine as scientists.” Koen agreed with that. “I think it’s very natural to work together in this way,” he told me about collaborating with a scientist. "For me, that's art. For the first time in history, we are able to have access to all kinds of different people. If we have to generate new knowledge, we have to make this combination.”
The two are teaming up this year for the Planetary Community Chicken (PCC) project, which will bring Koen’s genetically superior chickens to different communities and test their immunity and biological sustainability in real-world conditions. “The introduction of a new ‘global gene’ to the local flocks breaks the cycle of genetic erosion that can result from local inbreeding and industrial mono-cultural production,” the CCP site explains. “The desired outcome is to breed a stronger chicken that lives longer, and that, as a result, could offer longer-term economic and social stability to farmers.”
Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
“Compared to other chickens adapted to single local area, it is quite possible his population of chicken can adapt to a very large diversity of environment,” Olivier told me. “Commercial chickens will never survive in the real world. They die rapidly. Koen's population will be hardy, but not breed so quickly. [Right now, the] crossbreeding that farmers do is breed local with commercial, [but Koen’s chickens] will produce more and continue to survive. That's the step Koen wants to move to.”
Koen is hoping to test with Olivier at his research site in Ethiopia by the end of the year. He’s also planning to bring the PCC to Zimbabwe, Siberia, Belgium, Cape Town, and Detroit -- which is where he’s at right now. He’s displaying his 20th generation crossbreed at Detroit’s Wasserman Projects until the end of the year. He’ll be crossing his 19th generation Mechelse Cemani chicken with the American Wyandotte, a chicken named for a Native American tribe local to the Great Lakes near Michigan. That’ll produce the 20th generation Mechelse Wyandotte -- which, since it carries DNA from 20 different breeds, will grant it the biggest DNA pool of any chicken on the planet.
Koen’s excited to see what will happen. “I want people to understand that life only exists because the other senses that you exist,” he told me. “Together we can reach a completely other goal than to just be on your own.” Olivier is excited, too. “There is a mystery in chicken,” he told me. “The more we explore the chicken the more we discover, and the more we discover we know extremely little about it. Koen's work is helping to understand this mystery. But I think it is just the beginning.”
Check out the mystery for yourself at Detroit’s Wasserman Projects from September 22 to December 17. You’ll never see chickens the same way again.
Credit: Wasserman Projects/YouTube
Scientists discovered footprints made by some of the largest creatures ever to walk the Earth.
- Paleontologists published a paper on the discovery of dinosaur footprints on the roof of a French cave.
- The prints are deep underground and were made during the Middle Jurassic period.
- The footprints belonged to titanosaurs, the largest land animals ever.
French scientists found gigantic dinosaur footprints on the roof of the Castelbouc cave the Lozère region of southern France. A new paper outlines the discovery approximately 1640 feet under ground by the paleontologist Jean-David Moreau from the University of Burgundy–Franche-Comté and his colleagues.
The footprints likely belonged to an unknown species of titanosaur and were made 166 to 168 million years ago, in the Middle Jurassic Period. Titanosaurs, a group of long-necked, lizard-like sauropods, could be found all over the world in present day Africa, the Americas, Europe, and Australia. Among titanosaurs were the largest land animals to have ever existed, like the Patagotitan, which stretched 121 feet long and weighed 138,000 pounds.
The titanosaur Alamosaurus.
Credit: Bogdanov, 2006. Creative Commons.
Some of the 38 tracks found in France were as large as 4 feet long. They were likely made by three dinosaurs at the time when the area was on the surface, making up a muddy shoreline along which the giant creatures traveled. Over time, the site was buried by geological processes, with the tracks becoming moldings in the roof of a cave that's half a kilometer underground.
They were spotted as part of a caving expedition in December 2015 by the paper's authors. To find them, the scientists had to go down a narrow labyrinth of crawl spaces that often get flooded. The tracks were in a space about 260 feet long, 66 feet wide and 33 feet high.
Dinosaur tracks in the ceiling of Castelbouc Cave in France.
Credit: Jean-David Moreau et al./J. Vertebr. Paleontol.
Speaking to the French science magazine Sciences et Avenir, Jean-David Moreau explained that a caver "who was ahead of me turned to me and with the lamp of his helmet projected a grazing lighting on the ceiling which allowed to bring out the marks."
You can read the paper "Middle Jurassic tracks of sauropod dinosaurs in a deep karst cave in France," published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
Humans may have evolved to be tribalistic. Is that a bad thing?
- From politics to every day life, humans have a tendency to form social groups that are defined in part by how they differ from other groups.
- Neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky, author Dan Shapiro, and others explore the ways that tribalism functions in society, and discuss how—as social creatures—humans have evolved for bias.
- But bias is not inherently bad. The key to seeing things differently, according to Beau Lotto, is to "embody the fact" that everything is grounded in assumptions, to identify those assumptions, and then to question them.
Ancient corridors below the French capital have served as its ossuary, playground, brewery, and perhaps soon, air conditioning.
- People have been digging up limestone and gypsum from below Paris since Roman times.
- They left behind a vast network of corridors and galleries, since reused for many purposes — most famously, the Catacombs.
- Soon, the ancient labyrinth may find a new lease of life, providing a sustainable form of air conditioning.
Ancient mining areas below Paris for limestone (red) and gypsum (green).Credit: Émile Gérards (1859–1920) / Public domain
"If you're brave enough to try, you might be able to catch a train from UnLondon to Parisn't, or No York, or Helsunki, or Lost Angeles, or Sans Francisco, or Hong Gone, or Romeless."
China Miéville's fantasy novel Un Lun Dun is set in an eerie mirror version of London. In it, he hints that other cities have similar doubles. On the list that he offhandedly rattles off, Paris stands out. Because the City of Light really does have a twisted sister. Below Paris Overground is Paris Underground, the City of Darkness.
Most people will have heard of the Catacombs of Paris: subterranean charnel houses for the bones of around six million dead Parisians. They are one of the French capital's most famous tourist attractions – and undoubtedly its grisliest.
But they constitute only a small fragment of what the locals themselves call les carrières de Paris ("the mines of Paris"), a collection of tunnels and galleries up to 300 km (185 miles) long, most of which are off-limits to the public, yet eagerly explored by so-called cataphiles.
The Grand Réseau Sud ("Great Southern Network") takes up around 200 km beneath the 5th, 6th, 14th, and 15th arrondissements (administrative districts), all south of the river Seine. Smaller networks run beneath the 12th, 13th, and 16th arrondissements. How did they get there?
Paris stone and plaster of Paris
It all starts with geology. Sediments left behind by ancient seas created large deposits of limestone in the south of the city, mostly south of the Seine; and gypsum in the north, particularly in the hills of Montmartre and Ménilmontant. Highly sought after as building materials, both have been mined since Roman times.
The limestone is also known as Lutetian limestone (Lutetia is the Latin name for ancient Paris) or simply "Paris stone." It has been used for many famous Paris landmarks, including the Louvre and the grand buildings erected during Georges-Eugène Haussmann's large-scale remodelling of the city in the mid-19th century. The stone's warm, yellowish color provides visual unity and a bright elegance to the city.
The fine-powdered gypsum of northern Paris, used for making quick-setting plaster, was so famed for its quality that "plaster of Paris" is still used as a term of distinction. However, as gypsum is very soluble in water, the underground cavities left by its extraction were extremely vulnerable to collapse.
Like living on top of a rotting tooth: subsidence starts far below the surface, but it can destroy your house.Credit : Delavanne Avocats
In previous centuries, a road would occasionally open up to swallow a chariot, or even a whole house would disappear down a sinkhole. In 1778, a catastrophic subsidence in Ménilmontant killed seven. That's why the Montmartre gypsum quarries were dynamited rather than just left as they were. The remaining gypsum caves were to be filled up with concrete.
The official body governing Paris down below is the Inspection Générale des Carrières (IGC), founded in the late 1770s by King Louis XVI. The IGC was tasked with mapping and, where needed, propping up the current and ancient (and sometimes forgotten) mining corridors and galleries hiding beneath Paris.
A delightful hiding place
Also around that time, the dead of Paris were getting in the way of the living. At the end of the 18th century, their final destination consisted of about 200 small cemeteries, scattered throughout the city — all bursting at the seams, so to speak. There was no room to bury the newly dead, and the previously departed were fouling up both the water and air around their respective churchyards.
Something radical had to happen. And it did. From 1785 until 1814, the smaller cemeteries were emptied of their bones, which were transported with full funerary pomp to their final resting place in the ancient limestone quarries at Tombe-Issoire. Three large and modern cemeteries were opened to receive the remains of subsequent generations of Parisians: Montparnasse, Père-Lachaise, and Passy.
The six million dead Parisians in the Catacombs, from all corners of the capital and across many centuries, together form the world's largest necropolis — their now anonymized skulls and bones methodically stacked, occasionally into whimsical patterns. The Catacombs are fashioned into a memorial to the brevity of life. The message above the entrance reads: Arrête! C'est ici l'empire de la Mort. ("Halt! This is the empire of Death.")
That has not stopped the Catacombs, accessible via a side door to a classicist building on the Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, making just about every Top 20 list of things to see in Paris.
An underground economy
However, while the Catacombs certainly are the most famous part of the centuries-old network beneath Paris, and in non-pandemic times draw thousands of tourists each day, they constitute just 1.7 km (1 mile) of the 300-km (185-mile) tunneling total.
Subterranean Paris wasn't just used for mining and storing dead people. In the 17th century, Carthusian monks converted the ancient quarries under their monastery into distilleries for the green or yellow liqueur that still carries their name, chartreuse.
Because the mines generally keep a constant cool temperature of around 15° C (60° F), they were also ideal for brewing beer, as happened on a large scale from the end of the 17th century until well into the 20th century. Several caves were dug especially for establishing breweries, and not just because of the ambient temperature: going underground allowed brewers to remain close to their customers without having to pay a premium for real estate up top.
Overview of the Paris Catacombs.Credit: Inspection Générale des Carrières, 1857 / Public domain.
At the end of the 19th century, the underground breweries of the 14th arrondissement alone produced more than a million hectoliters (22 million gallons) per year. One of the most famous of Paris' underground breweries, Dumesnil, stayed in operation until the late 1960s.
In that decade, the network of corridors and galleries south of the Seine, long since abandoned by miners, became the unofficial playground for the young people of Paris. They explored the fantastical world beneath their feet, in some cases via entry points located in their very schools. Fascinated, these cataphiles ("catacomb lovers") read up on old books, explored the subterranean labyrinth, and drew up schematics that were passed around among fellow initiates as reverently as treasure maps.
As Robert Macfarlane writes in Underland, Paris-beneath-their-feet became "a place where people might slip into different identities, assume new ways of being and relating, become fluid and wild in ways that are constrained on the surface."
Some larger caves turned into notorious party zones: a 7-meter-tall gallery below the Val-de-Grâce hospital is widely known as "Salle Z." Over the last few decades, various other locations in subterranean Paris have hosted jazz and rock concerts and rave parties — like no other city, Paris really has an "underground music scene."
Hokusai's Great Wave as the backdrop to the "beach" under Paris.Credit: Reddit
Cataphiles vs. cataphobes
With popularity came increased reports of nuisance and crime — the tunnels provided easy access to telephone cables, which were stolen for the resale value of their copper.
The general public's "discovery" of the underground network led the city of Paris to officially interdict all access by non-authorized persons. That decree dates back to 1955, but the "underground police" have an understanding with seasoned cataphiles. Their main targets are so-called tourists, who by their lack of knowledge expose themselves to risk of injuries or worse, and degrade their surroundings, often leaving loads of litter in their wake.
The understanding does not extend to the IGC. Unlike in the 19th century, when weak cavities were shored up by purpose-built pillars, the policy now is to inject concrete to fill up endangered spaces — thus progressively blocking off parts of the network. That procedure has also been used to separate the Catacombs to prevent "infiltration" of the site by cataphiles.
Many subterranean streets have their own names, signs and all. This is the Rue des Bourguignons (Street of the Burgundians) below the Champs des Capucins (Capuchin Field), neither of which exists on the surface.Credit: Jean-François Gornet via Wikimedia and licensed under
The cataphiles, however, are fighting back. In a game of cat and mouse with the authorities, they are reopening blocked passages and creating chatières ("cat flaps") through which they can squeeze into chambers no longer accessible via other underground corridors.
Catacomb climate control
Alone against the unstoppable tide of concrete, the amateurs of Underground Paris would be helpless. But the fight against climate change may turn the subterranean labyrinths from a liability into an asset — and the City of Paris into an ally.
The UN's 2015 Climate Plan — concluded in Paris, by the way — requires the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent by 2050. And Paris itself wants to be Europe's greenest city by 2030. More sustainable climate control of our living spaces would be a great help toward both targets. A lot of energy is spent heating houses in winter and cooling them in summer.
This is where the constant temperature of the Parisian tunnels comes in. It's not just good for brewing beer; it's a source of geothermal energy, says Fieldwork, an architectural firm based in Paris. It can be used to temper temperatures, helping to cool houses in summer and warming them in winter.
One catch for the cataphiles: it also works when the underground cavities are filled up with concrete. So perhaps one day, Paris Underground, fully filled up with concrete, will completely fall off the map, reducing the city's formerly real doppelgänger into an air conditioning unit.
Cool in summer, warm in winter: Paris Underground could become Paris A/C.Credit: Fieldwork
Strange Maps #1083
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