Hitting the Books: The genetic fluke that enabled us to drink milk

It may not contain our recommended daily allowance of Vitamin R but milk — or "cow juice" as it's known on the streets — is among the oldest known animal products repurposed for human consumption. Milk has been a staple of our diets since the 9th century BC but it wasn't until a fortuitous mutation to the human genome that we were able to properly digest that delicious bovine-based beverage. In her latest book, Life as We Made It: How 50,000 Years of Human Innovation Refined — and Redefined — Nature, author Beth Shapiro takes readers on a journey of scientific discovery, explaining how symbiotic relationships between humans and the environment around us have changed — but not always for the better.

Life as we made it by Beth Shapiro
Basic Books

Excerpted from Life as We Made It: How 50,000 Years of Human Innovation Refined—and Redefined—Nature by Beth Shapiro. Copyright © 2021. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.


The first archaeological evidence that people were dairying dates to around 8,500 years ago — 2,000 years after cattle domestication. In Anatolia (present-day eastern Turkey), which is pretty far from the original center of cattle domestication, archaeologists recovered milk fat residues from ceramic pots, indicating that people were processing milk by heating it up. Similar analyses of milk fat proteins in ceramics record the spread of dairying into Europe, which appears to have happened simultaneously with the spread of domestic cattle.

It’s not surprising that people began dairying soon after cattle domestication. Milk is the primary source of sugar, fat, vitamins, and protein for newborn mammals, and as such is evolved expressly to be nutritious. It would not have taken much imagination for a cattle herder to deduce that a cow’s milk would be just as good for him and his family as it was for her calf. The only challenge would have been digesting it—without the lactase persistence mutation, that is.

Because lactase persistence allows people to take advantage of calories from lactose, it also makes sense that the spread of the lactase persistence mutation and the spread of dairying would be tightly linked. If the mutation arose near the start of dairying or was already present in a population that acquired dairying technology, the mutation would have given those who had it an advantage over those who did not. Those with the mutation would, with access to additional resources from milk, more efficiently convert animal protein into more people, and the mutation would increase in frequency.

Curiously, though, ancient DNA has not found the lactase persistence mutation in the genomes of early dairy farmers, and the mutation is at its lowest European frequency today in the precise part of the world where dairying began. The first dairy farmers were not, it seems, drinking milk. Instead, they were processing milk by cooking or fermenting it, making cheeses and sour yogurts to remove the offending indigestible sugars.

If people can consume dairy products without the lactase persistence mutation, there must be some other explanation as to why the mutation is so prevalent today. And lactase persistence is remarkably prevalent. Nearly a third of us have lactase persistence, and at least five different mutations have evolved—all on the same stretch of intron 13 of the MCM6 gene—that make people lactase persistent. In each case, these mutations have gone to high frequency in the populations in which they evolved, indicating that they provide an enormous evolutionary advantage. Is being able to drink milk (in addition to eating cheese and yogurt) sufficient to explain why these mutations have been so important?

The most straightforward hypothesis is that, yes, the benefit of lactase persistence is tied to lactose, the sugar that represents about 30 percent of the calories in milk. Only those who can digest lactose have access to these calories, which may have been crucial calories during famines, droughts, and disease. Milk may also have provided an important source of clean water, which also may have been limited during periods of hardship.

Another hypothesis is that milk drinking provided access to calcium and vitamin D in addition to lactose, the complement of which aids calcium absorption. This might benefit particular populations with limited access to sunlight, as ultraviolet radiation from sun exposure is necessary to stimulate the body’s production of vitamin D. However, while this might explain the high frequency of lactase persistence in places like northern Europe, it cannot explain why populations in relatively sunny climates, such as parts of Africa and the Middle East, also have high frequencies of lactase persistence.

Neither this hypothesis nor the more straightforward hypothesis linked to lactase can explain why lactase persistence is at such low frequency in parts of Central Asia and Mongolia where herding, pastoralism, and dairying have been practiced for millennia. For now, the jury is still out as to why lactase persistence has reached such high frequencies in so many different parts of the world, and why it remains at low frequencies in some regions where dairying is economically and culturally important.

Ancient DNA has shed some light on when and where the lactase persistence mutation arose and spread in Europe. None of the remains from pre-Neolithic archaeological sites—economies that relied on hunting and gathering—have the lactase persistence mutation. None of the ancient Europeans from early farming populations in southern and central Europe (people believed to be descended from farmers spreading into Europe from Anatolia) had the lactase persistence mutation. Instead, the oldest evidence of the lactase persistence mutation in Europe is from a 4,350-year-old individual from central Europe. Around that same time, the mutation is found in a single individual from what is now Sweden and at two sites in northern Spain. While these data are sparse, the timing is coincident with another major cultural upheaval in Europe: the arrival of Asian pastoralists of the Yamnaya culture. Perhaps the Yamnaya brought with them not only horses, wheels, and a new language, but an improved ability to digest milk.

The mystery of lactase persistence in humans highlights the complicated interaction among genes, environment, and culture. The initial increase in frequency of a lactase persistence mutation, regardless of in whom it first arose, may have happened by chance. When the Yamnaya arrived in Europe, for example, they brought disease—specifically plague—that devastated native European populations. When populations are small, genes can drift quickly to higher frequency regardless of what benefit they might provide. If the lactase persistence mutation was already present when plague appeared and populations crashed, the mutation’s initial increase may have happened surreptitiously. When populations recovered, dairying was already widespread and the benefit to those with the mutation would have been immediate. By domesticating cattle and developing dairying technologies, our ancestors created an environment that changed the course of our own evolution.

We continue to live and evolve in this human-constructed niche. In 2018, our global community produced 830 million metric tons (more than 21 billion US gallons) of milk, 82 percent of which was from cattle. The rest comes from a long list of other species that people domesticated within the last 10,000 years. Sheep and goats, which together make up around 3 percent of global milk production, were first farmed for their milk in Europe around the same time as cattle dairying began. Buffaloes were domesticated in the Indus Valley 4,500 years ago and are today the second largest producer of milk next to cattle, producing around 14 percent of the global supply. Camels, which were domesticated in Central Asia 5,000 years ago, produce around 0.3 percent of the world’s milk supply. People also consume milk from horses, which were first milked by people of the Botai culture 5,500 years ago; yaks, which were domesticated in Tibet 4,500 years ago; donkeys, which were domesticated in Arabia or East Africa 6,000 years ago; and reindeer, which are still in the process of being domesticated. But those are just the most common dairy products. Dairy products from more exotic species—moose, elk, red deer, alpacas, llamas—can be purchased and consumed today, and rumor has it that Top Chef ’s Edward Lee is working out how to make pig milk ricotta, should one want to try such a thing.

Hitting the Books: The genetic fluke that enabled us to drink milk

It may not contain our recommended daily allowance of Vitamin R but milk — or "cow juice" as it's known on the streets — is among the oldest known animal products repurposed for human consumption. Milk has been a staple of our diets since the 9th century BC but it wasn't until a fortuitous mutation to the human genome that we were able to properly digest that delicious bovine-based beverage. In her latest book, Life as We Made It: How 50,000 Years of Human Innovation Refined — and Redefined — Nature, author Beth Shapiro takes readers on a journey of scientific discovery, explaining how symbiotic relationships between humans and the environment around us have changed — but not always for the better.

Life as we made it by Beth Shapiro
Basic Books

Excerpted from Life as We Made It: How 50,000 Years of Human Innovation Refined—and Redefined—Nature by Beth Shapiro. Copyright © 2021. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.


The first archaeological evidence that people were dairying dates to around 8,500 years ago — 2,000 years after cattle domestication. In Anatolia (present-day eastern Turkey), which is pretty far from the original center of cattle domestication, archaeologists recovered milk fat residues from ceramic pots, indicating that people were processing milk by heating it up. Similar analyses of milk fat proteins in ceramics record the spread of dairying into Europe, which appears to have happened simultaneously with the spread of domestic cattle.

It’s not surprising that people began dairying soon after cattle domestication. Milk is the primary source of sugar, fat, vitamins, and protein for newborn mammals, and as such is evolved expressly to be nutritious. It would not have taken much imagination for a cattle herder to deduce that a cow’s milk would be just as good for him and his family as it was for her calf. The only challenge would have been digesting it—without the lactase persistence mutation, that is.

Because lactase persistence allows people to take advantage of calories from lactose, it also makes sense that the spread of the lactase persistence mutation and the spread of dairying would be tightly linked. If the mutation arose near the start of dairying or was already present in a population that acquired dairying technology, the mutation would have given those who had it an advantage over those who did not. Those with the mutation would, with access to additional resources from milk, more efficiently convert animal protein into more people, and the mutation would increase in frequency.

Curiously, though, ancient DNA has not found the lactase persistence mutation in the genomes of early dairy farmers, and the mutation is at its lowest European frequency today in the precise part of the world where dairying began. The first dairy farmers were not, it seems, drinking milk. Instead, they were processing milk by cooking or fermenting it, making cheeses and sour yogurts to remove the offending indigestible sugars.

If people can consume dairy products without the lactase persistence mutation, there must be some other explanation as to why the mutation is so prevalent today. And lactase persistence is remarkably prevalent. Nearly a third of us have lactase persistence, and at least five different mutations have evolved—all on the same stretch of intron 13 of the MCM6 gene—that make people lactase persistent. In each case, these mutations have gone to high frequency in the populations in which they evolved, indicating that they provide an enormous evolutionary advantage. Is being able to drink milk (in addition to eating cheese and yogurt) sufficient to explain why these mutations have been so important?

The most straightforward hypothesis is that, yes, the benefit of lactase persistence is tied to lactose, the sugar that represents about 30 percent of the calories in milk. Only those who can digest lactose have access to these calories, which may have been crucial calories during famines, droughts, and disease. Milk may also have provided an important source of clean water, which also may have been limited during periods of hardship.

Another hypothesis is that milk drinking provided access to calcium and vitamin D in addition to lactose, the complement of which aids calcium absorption. This might benefit particular populations with limited access to sunlight, as ultraviolet radiation from sun exposure is necessary to stimulate the body’s production of vitamin D. However, while this might explain the high frequency of lactase persistence in places like northern Europe, it cannot explain why populations in relatively sunny climates, such as parts of Africa and the Middle East, also have high frequencies of lactase persistence.

Neither this hypothesis nor the more straightforward hypothesis linked to lactase can explain why lactase persistence is at such low frequency in parts of Central Asia and Mongolia where herding, pastoralism, and dairying have been practiced for millennia. For now, the jury is still out as to why lactase persistence has reached such high frequencies in so many different parts of the world, and why it remains at low frequencies in some regions where dairying is economically and culturally important.

Ancient DNA has shed some light on when and where the lactase persistence mutation arose and spread in Europe. None of the remains from pre-Neolithic archaeological sites—economies that relied on hunting and gathering—have the lactase persistence mutation. None of the ancient Europeans from early farming populations in southern and central Europe (people believed to be descended from farmers spreading into Europe from Anatolia) had the lactase persistence mutation. Instead, the oldest evidence of the lactase persistence mutation in Europe is from a 4,350-year-old individual from central Europe. Around that same time, the mutation is found in a single individual from what is now Sweden and at two sites in northern Spain. While these data are sparse, the timing is coincident with another major cultural upheaval in Europe: the arrival of Asian pastoralists of the Yamnaya culture. Perhaps the Yamnaya brought with them not only horses, wheels, and a new language, but an improved ability to digest milk.

The mystery of lactase persistence in humans highlights the complicated interaction among genes, environment, and culture. The initial increase in frequency of a lactase persistence mutation, regardless of in whom it first arose, may have happened by chance. When the Yamnaya arrived in Europe, for example, they brought disease—specifically plague—that devastated native European populations. When populations are small, genes can drift quickly to higher frequency regardless of what benefit they might provide. If the lactase persistence mutation was already present when plague appeared and populations crashed, the mutation’s initial increase may have happened surreptitiously. When populations recovered, dairying was already widespread and the benefit to those with the mutation would have been immediate. By domesticating cattle and developing dairying technologies, our ancestors created an environment that changed the course of our own evolution.

We continue to live and evolve in this human-constructed niche. In 2018, our global community produced 830 million metric tons (more than 21 billion US gallons) of milk, 82 percent of which was from cattle. The rest comes from a long list of other species that people domesticated within the last 10,000 years. Sheep and goats, which together make up around 3 percent of global milk production, were first farmed for their milk in Europe around the same time as cattle dairying began. Buffaloes were domesticated in the Indus Valley 4,500 years ago and are today the second largest producer of milk next to cattle, producing around 14 percent of the global supply. Camels, which were domesticated in Central Asia 5,000 years ago, produce around 0.3 percent of the world’s milk supply. People also consume milk from horses, which were first milked by people of the Botai culture 5,500 years ago; yaks, which were domesticated in Tibet 4,500 years ago; donkeys, which were domesticated in Arabia or East Africa 6,000 years ago; and reindeer, which are still in the process of being domesticated. But those are just the most common dairy products. Dairy products from more exotic species—moose, elk, red deer, alpacas, llamas—can be purchased and consumed today, and rumor has it that Top Chef ’s Edward Lee is working out how to make pig milk ricotta, should one want to try such a thing.

We can make the steel of tomorrow without the fossil fuels of yesteryear

The modern world has grown around steel bones — everything from tools and home appliances to skyscrapers and airplanes use the versatile material in their construction. But the process of making steel is a significant contributor to global warming and climate change. In 2018, reportedly every ton of steel produced generated 1.85 tons of carbon dioxide, accounting for about 7 percent of global CO2 emissions that year. This poses not just environmental challenges for our ever increasing world, it could also impact steel producers’ bottom line, which is why the industry is developing a “fossil-free” means of making the alloy, one that relies on renewable-sourced hydrogen rather than carbon coke.

Steel is an alloy composed of iron, which in its pure form is relatively soft, with a small amount of introduced carbon, usually about 2 percent of its total weight. This improves the material’s strength and reduces its propensity for fracturing. The process starts by combining iron ore, before coking coal and limestone (which remove impurities) in a blast furnace to create pig iron.

That molten pig iron is then poured into a furnace and high pressure air is introduced via a water-cooled lance. The oxygen chemically reacts with the molten iron to purge impurities — as well as produce significant amounts of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. The oxygen also forces impurities like silicates and phosphates present in the pig iron to react with limestone flux, trapping them as waste slag. Today, per the World Steel Association, some 1,864 million metric tons of crude steel are produced annually with China producing a vast majority of it.

While the WSA points out that “in the last 50 years, the steel industry has reduced its energy consumption per tonne of steel produced by 60 percent” and notes that steel is infinitely reusable, and that “new” steel typically contain 30percent recycled steel on average the traditional methods of iron and steel production are becoming untenable — at least if we want to mitigate its impacts on climate change. What’s more, the International Energy Agency estimates that global steel production will grow by a third by 2050, which will only compound the industry’s environmental impacts. That’s where fossil-free steel comes in.

Take HYBRIT (Hydrogen Breakthrough Ironmaking Technology), for example. This process has been developed as a joint venture between three Swedish companies: SSAB, which makes steel, energy company Vattenfall, and LKAB, which mines iron ore. Rather than using coking coal and a blast furnace to convert raw iron ore into metallic iron, the HYBRIT method uses hydrogen generated from renewable energy sources and a technique known as direct reduction, which lowers the amount of oxygen contained within the ore without heating it above the metal’s melting point, to create sponge iron.

Blast Furnaces vs HYBRIT
HYBRIT

Like pig iron, sponge iron is an intermediary material in the steelmaking process (it’ll get shipped off to SSAB to be turned into steel slabs), but in HYBRIT’s case, its production results in the creation of water vapor rather than carbon dioxide.

“The first fossil-free steel in the world is not only a breakthrough for SSAB, it represents proof that it’s possible to make the transition and significantly reduce the global carbon footprint of the steel industry,” Martin Lindqvist, CEO of SSAB, told reporters in August. “We hope that this will inspire others to also want to speed up the green transition.”

The HYBRIT coalition opened a pilot direct reduction plant in Luleå, Sweden last year and has announced plans to increase production to an industrial scale by 2026. The team claims that eliminating fossil fuels from the steelmaking industry in Sweden could drop the country’s total CO2 emissions by at least 10 percent. However, they are not the only group looking into fossil-free steel production. The H2 Green Steel company has announced its intent to open a large-scale plant in northern Sweden by 2024 and expects to produce 5 million tonnes of the material annually by 2030.

In June, Volvo announced that it would be partnering with SSAB to develop fossil-free steel for use in its products — both passenger cars and industrial machines. Last week, Volvo unveiled the first vehicle to be made with fossil-free steel, an 8-plus ton load carrier designed to operate within mines. Not only is the load carrier powered by a fully electric drivetrain, it can autonomously navigate across a worksite as well. Granted only about 3 of the vehicle’s 8 tons were made from fossil-free steel (the drivetrain’s steel components, for example, were made through traditional smelting means), this marks an important first step towards a carbon-neutral transportation future.

“When we have been talking about ‘fossil free’ in the transport sector, we have been focusing a lot on emissions from the vehicles in use. But it's clear to us and to everyone else that we also need to address the carbon footprint from the production of our vehicles,” Volvo Group’s Chief Technology Officer Lars Stenqvist told Forbes. “That's why it's so important now to team up with everyone in the value chain and collaborate in order to drive out all the fossil fuel also used in the production of components, parts and also running our production facilities.”

Volvo expects the autonomous load carriers to enter real-world operation by next year, though the company concedes that its ability to ramp up production of fossil-free vehicles will depend largely on SSAB’s ability to deliver sufficient quantities of the material.

Tesla posts a wildly profitable Q3 despite difficult car market

Despite a global pandemic and ongoing chip shortage, Tesla continues to make money hand over fist. The company reported on Wednesday that it had a net income of $1.62 billion — five times more than it did this time last year. What's more, Tesla's operating income grew some 54 percent over the past quarter to $2 billion.

Company executives pointed to record-setting sales of both the Model 3 and Model Y — a combined 232,102 units delivered during Q3 2021 — for the explosive earnings growth, though only 9,289 Models X and S were shipped during the same period, a nearly 40 percent drop from Q2 2021 rates. Overall, deliveries increased in Q3 by 20 percent compared to the previous quarter and increased by roughly 70 percent over Q3 2020. Tesla executives credit increased production of the Model Y at the Shanghai Gigafactory for the boost in deliveries. 

On the technology front, Tesla continues its FSD City Streets beta rollout and plans to "continue to monitor fleet data closely to help facilitate a smooth rollout," per its quarterly update. 

The company also released a more streamlined iteration of its car companion app that "enables phone key for multiple vehicles simultaneously, allows commands to be sent to the vehicle immediately upon opening the app and integrates the purchase of upgrades, subscriptions and accessories." New features include Disney+ streaming, a scrolling arcade shooter dubbed Sky Force Reloaded, a "car wash mode," and various tweaks to improve the vehicle's cold weather performance. 

Looking ahead, the company expects to achieve a 50 percent average annual growth in vehicle deliveries "over a multi-year horizon" and eventually reach "industry-leading" operating margins. In the short term, however, "Q4 production will depend heavily on availability of parts, but we are driving for continued growth," Tesla CFO Zachary Kirkhorn said during the call.

"Tesla continues to break molds in these [existing] vehicle segments and we hope to do so with each new product," Martin Viega, Tesla's Senior Director of Investor Relations, noted. "As we've said publicly, we'll eventually expand the vehicle lineup to get to larger volumes. We believe that we will need to be in all major segments across small and mid-size sedans, SUVs and trucks to do so along with, of course, the massive space of Robo taxi."

Tesla posts a wildly profitable Q3 despite difficult car market

Despite a global pandemic and ongoing chip shortage, Tesla continues to make money hand over fist. The company reported on Wednesday that it had a net income of $1.62 billion — five times more than it did this time last year. What's more, Tesla's operating income grew some 54 percent over the past quarter to $2 billion.

Company executives pointed to record-setting sales of both the Model 3 and Model Y — a combined 232,102 units delivered during Q3 2021 — for the explosive earnings growth, though only 9,289 Models X and S were shipped during the same period, a nearly 40 percent drop from Q2 2021 rates. Overall, deliveries increased in Q3 by 20 percent compared to the previous quarter and increased by roughly 70 percent over Q3 2020. Tesla executives credit increased production of the Model Y at the Shanghai Gigafactory for the boost in deliveries. 

On the technology front, Tesla continues its FSD City Streets beta rollout and plans to "continue to monitor fleet data closely to help facilitate a smooth rollout," per its quarterly update. 

The company also released a more streamlined iteration of its car companion app that "enables phone key for multiple vehicles simultaneously, allows commands to be sent to the vehicle immediately upon opening the app and integrates the purchase of upgrades, subscriptions and accessories." New features include Disney+ streaming, a scrolling arcade shooter dubbed Sky Force Reloaded, a "car wash mode," and various tweaks to improve the vehicle's cold weather performance. 

Looking ahead, the company expects to achieve a 50 percent average annual growth in vehicle deliveries "over a multi-year horizon" and eventually reach "industry-leading" operating margins. In the short term, however, "Q4 production will depend heavily on availability of parts, but we are driving for continued growth," Tesla CFO Zachary Kirkhorn said during the call.

"Tesla continues to break molds in these [existing] vehicle segments and we hope to do so with each new product," Martin Viega, Tesla's Senior Director of Investor Relations, noted. "As we've said publicly, we'll eventually expand the vehicle lineup to get to larger volumes. We believe that we will need to be in all major segments across small and mid-size sedans, SUVs and trucks to do so along with, of course, the massive space of Robo taxi."

Egyptian authorities ‘detain’ robotic artist for 10 days over espionage fears

The robotic artist known as Ai-Da was scheduled to display her artwork alongside the great pyramids of Egypt on Thursday, though the show was nearly called off after both the robot and her human sculptor, Aidan Meller, were detained by Egyptian authorities for a week and a half until they could confirm that the artist was actually a spy.

The incident began when border guards objected over Ai-da's camera eyes, which it uses in its creative process, and its on-board modem. “I can ditch the modems, but I can’t really gouge her eyes out,” Meller told The Guardian. The robot artist, which was built in 2019, typically travels via specialized cargo case and was held at the border until clearing customs on Wednesday evening, hours before the exhibit was scheduled to begin.

“The British ambassador has been working through the night to get Ai-Da released, but we’re right up to the wire now,” Meller said, just before Ai-Da was sprung from robo-jail. “It’s really stressful.”

Ai-Da is slated to participate in the Forever is Now exhibit, which is slated to run through November 7th and features a number of leading Egyptian and international artists, is being presented by Art D’Égypte in conjunction with the Egyptian ministry of antiquities and tourism and the Egyptian ministry of foreign affairs.

“She is an artist robot, let’s be really clear about this. She is not a spy," Meller declared. "People fear robots, I understand that. But the whole situation is ironic, because the goal of Ai-Da was to highlight and warn of the abuse of technological development, and she’s being held because she is technology. Ai-Da would appreciate that irony, I think.”

  

Egyptian authorities ‘detain’ robotic artist for 10 days over espionage fears

The robotic artist known as Ai-Da was scheduled to display her artwork alongside the great pyramids of Egypt on Thursday, though the show was nearly called off after both the robot and her human sculptor, Aidan Meller, were detained by Egyptian authorities for a week and a half until they could confirm that the artist was actually a spy.

The incident began when border guards objected over Ai-da's camera eyes, which it uses in its creative process, and its on-board modem. “I can ditch the modems, but I can’t really gouge her eyes out,” Meller told The Guardian. The robot artist, which was built in 2019, typically travels via specialized cargo case and was held at the border until clearing customs on Wednesday evening, hours before the exhibit was scheduled to begin.

“The British ambassador has been working through the night to get Ai-Da released, but we’re right up to the wire now,” Meller said, just before Ai-Da was sprung from robo-jail. “It’s really stressful.”

Ai-Da is slated to participate in the Forever is Now exhibit, which is slated to run through November 7th and features a number of leading Egyptian and international artists, is being presented by Art D’Égypte in conjunction with the Egyptian ministry of antiquities and tourism and the Egyptian ministry of foreign affairs.

“She is an artist robot, let’s be really clear about this. She is not a spy," Meller declared. "People fear robots, I understand that. But the whole situation is ironic, because the goal of Ai-Da was to highlight and warn of the abuse of technological development, and she’s being held because she is technology. Ai-Da would appreciate that irony, I think.”

  

The Pixel 6’s camera will feature larger image sensors and smarter photo editing AI

The Pixel 6 smartphone has finally been unveiled. On Tuesday, Google explained what sorts of cameras and image capture systems the new handsets will offer when they go on sale October 28th. 

Both the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro will come equipped with a 50-megapixel Octa PD Quad Bayer wide camera (the base 6 will additionally feature 7x Super Res Zoom) as well as a 12-megapixel ultra-wide camera. Their new 1/1.3 inch rear sensors reportedly capture up to 150 percent more light than the Pixel 5. The 6 Pro will also sport a 48-megapixel telephoto camera with 4x optical and 20x Super Res Zoom functionality. Around front, the base 6 will offer an 8-megapixel camera while the 6 Pro gets a 12-megapixel camera. 

Both models can capture video in 1080p and 4K (at either 30 or 60 FPS) with their rear cameras, as well as 240 FPS slo-mo. The 6 Pro's front camera can record at both 1080p (30 and 60 FPS) or in 4K at 30 FPS. The base 6's front however can only record at 1080p resolution at 30 FPS.

Editing photos should be a much more streamlined process than with past models, thanks to the Pixel 6's Tensor SOC integration. Users will be able to leverage the Magic Eraser which can quickly and seamlessly remove random objects and even people from the background of shots. What's really cool is that Magic Eraser will work on any photo you have, whether you just captured it using the Pixel 6 or dug it out of your Google Photos archive. The system will automatically recommend distractions to remove from your shots, though you can just as easily manually circle items that you want erased. 

Another cool feature is Face Unblurring. The camera is already automatically scanning for faces in the scene you're pointing it at, using Face SSD (single-shot detector). If it detects one that is blurry, the Pixel will activate a second camera so that you'll actually take two photos with the press of the shutter button — a short exposure from from the ultra-wide and a standard exposure from the main. Machine learning then stitches the sharper face captured by the ultra-wide onto the image captured by the main to create a clear hybrid image. 

The Pixel 6 can also intentionally increase blur through Motion Mode (using the same basic technique as Face Unblur but working in reverse) by first taking multiple shots of a scene, then identifying the subject of the photo via machine learning and computational photography techniques and applying aesthetic blurring effects to the parts that are in motion, while keeping the static aspects crisp and sharp. Best of all, these features will extend to any first- or third-party app that relies on the Pixel 6's camera, such as Snapchat.

Catch up on all the latest news from Google's Pixel 6 event!

The Pixel 6’s camera will feature larger image sensors and smarter photo editing AI

The Pixel 6 smartphone has finally been unveiled. On Tuesday, Google explained what sorts of cameras and image capture systems the new handsets will offer when they go on sale October 28th. 

Both the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro will come equipped with a 50-megapixel Octa PD Quad Bayer wide camera (the base 6 will additionally feature 7x Super Res Zoom) as well as a 12-megapixel ultra-wide camera. Their new 1/1.3 inch rear sensors reportedly capture up to 150 percent more light than the Pixel 5. The 6 Pro will also sport a 48-megapixel telephoto camera with 4x optical and 20x Super Res Zoom functionality. Around front, the base 6 will offer an 8-megapixel camera while the 6 Pro gets a 12-megapixel camera. 

Both models can capture video in 1080p and 4K (at either 30 or 60 FPS) with their rear cameras, as well as 240 FPS slo-mo. The 6 Pro's front camera can record at both 1080p (30 and 60 FPS) or in 4K at 30 FPS. The base 6's front however can only record at 1080p resolution at 30 FPS.

Editing photos should be a much more streamlined process than with past models, thanks to the Pixel 6's Tensor SOC integration. Users will be able to leverage the Magic Eraser which can quickly and seamlessly remove random objects and even people from the background of shots. What's really cool is that Magic Eraser will work on any photo you have, whether you just captured it using the Pixel 6 or dug it out of your Google Photos archive. The system will automatically recommend distractions to remove from your shots, though you can just as easily manually circle items that you want erased. 

Another cool feature is Face Unblurring. The camera is already automatically scanning for faces in the scene you're pointing it at, using Face SSD (single-shot detector). If it detects one that is blurry, the Pixel will activate a second camera so that you'll actually take two photos with the press of the shutter button — a short exposure from from the ultra-wide and a standard exposure from the main. Machine learning then stitches the sharper face captured by the ultra-wide onto the image captured by the main to create a clear hybrid image. 

The Pixel 6 can also intentionally increase blur through Motion Mode (using the same basic technique as Face Unblur but working in reverse) by first taking multiple shots of a scene, then identifying the subject of the photo via machine learning and computational photography techniques and applying aesthetic blurring effects to the parts that are in motion, while keeping the static aspects crisp and sharp. Best of all, these features will extend to any first- or third-party app that relies on the Pixel 6's camera, such as Snapchat.

Catch up on all the latest news from Google's Pixel 6 event!

EPA announces plans to regulate cancer-causing ‘forever chemicals’

Showing up in everything from cosmetics and dental floss to product packaging and cleaning supplies. polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are ubiquitous to the modern world. They're also known as "forever chemicals" as they do not break down in nature. What's more, they've been linked to a host of human diseases, from thyroid conditions to certain cancers, which is why, in 2016, the Obama administration enacted a unenforceable recommendation limiting the amount of PFAS in a given product should not exceed 70 parts per trillion. On Monday, the Biden administration announced that it will give Obama's recommendation some teeth.

“This is a really bold set of actions for a big problem,” EPA administrator Michael Regan told The Washington Post. “This strategy really lays out a series of concrete and ambitious actions to protect people. There are concrete steps that we are taking that move this issue forward in a very aggressive way.”

The EPA unveiled its 3-year roadmap towards regulating the class of chemicals on Monday centers on a trio of approaches: "increase investments in research, leverage authorities to take action now to restrict PFAS chemicals from being released into the environment, and accelerate the cleanup of PFAS contamination," according to the EPA. To that end, the administration plans to set enforceable drinking water limits under the Safe Drinking Water Act, designate PFAS as a hazardous substance under CERCLA (which would hold manufacturers financially liable for incinerating the chemical or releasing it into waterways), set timelines for establishing effluent guideline limitations under the Clean Water Act, review rules and guidance under the Toxic Substances Control Act, and expand monitoring, data collection and research of the chemicals. Additionally, the agency announced a new national testing strategy that will require PFAS manufacturers to provide toxicity data on the chemicals they create. 

“Communities contaminated by these toxic forever chemicals have waited decades for action,” Ken Cook, President of the Environmental Working Group, said in a press statement. “So, it’s good news that Administrator Regan will fulfill President Biden’s pledge to take quick action to reduce PFOA and PFOS in tap water, to restrict industrial releases of PFAS into the air and water, and to designate PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances to hold polluters accountable. It’s been more than 20 years since EPA and EWG first learned that these toxic forever chemicals were building up in our blood and increasing our likelihood of cancer and other health harms. It’s time for action, not more plans, and that’s what this Administrator will deliver."

A handful of states including New Jersey, Vermont, Michigan, and New York, have already moved to regulate the chemicals on their own — California banned their use in baby and toddler products earlier this year — while the EU has banned many of the chemicals outright. The US Navy has announced that it will ban PFAS from its firefighting foam by October, 2023, as directed by Congress.