Weeks after President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office in 2018, the combative leftist leader enraged international investors and Mexico’s business community by canceling the airport, which was already around one-third complete. During his campaign, López Obrador had railed against the project’s management for overspending and corruption. Then, in a post-election referendum launched by López Obrador’s party, the public had voted to scrap it (though critics claimed the results were unrepresentative, with just one in 90 Mexican voters casting a vote).
Left behind was an eerily empty landscape bigger than Paris, circled by the sprawl of Greater Mexico City. In this vast footprint, the president decreed, the city would build one of the world’s biggest urban parks, a project he dubbed a “new Tenochtitlan.” To oversee what would become known as Lake Texcoco Ecological Park (PELT), he appointed Iñaki Echeverria, a Mexican architect and landscape designer who had spent over two decades advocating for the site’s restoration.
Echeverria’s vision for the park is part of a wave of projects that have upended the traditional goal of ecosystem restoration: returning ecosystems to the state they were in before humans damaged them. Instead of seeking to roll back the clock, Echeverria is creating an artificial wetland that aims to transform the future of the entire Valley region, drawing lessons from both Tenochtitlan and modern Mexico City on how thriving cities can coexist with flourishing ecosystems.
With a budget of $1 billion, Texcoco Park is repurposing the structural skeletons and concrete gorges left behind by the airport construction to create artificial lakes and habitats intended to host human visitors and an unprecedented mix of species. And Echeverria’s team hopes the park can also help foster economic development by developing native plant nurseries and reviving cultural practices facing extinction, including the harvest of spirulina algae. While the end result would look little like Texcoco’s past, it could revive something more fundamental: the Valley of Mexico’s long-dormant history of building in step with natural systems.
Yet today, miles of Texcoco Park remain ringed by a perimeter fence, manned by guards in military uniforms. As the project races toward 2024, when López Obrador’s term ends (he’s vowed not to seek a second one), much remains inaccessible to the public and besieged by controversy. The plans for Lake Texcoco’s rebirth could yet vanish.
Lake Texcoco returns
Edged by mountain ranges and two volcanoes, the Valley of Mexico has historically formed an “endorheic basin,” where water cannot flow out but instead diffuses into the ground. This process concentrates salt at the lowest spot, where Lake Texcoco sits—the plug in the Valley’s bathtub. Through history, the area’s mixed salty and fresh waters have served as a petri dish for the evolution of unusual organisms, including an entire ecosystem of now-extinct fish species and the axolotl, an amphibian with the ability to regenerate limbs, named for one of the Mexica’s gods.
The Download: child online safety laws, and ClimateTech is coming
Matt Kaeberlein is what you might call a dog person. He has grown up with dogs and describes his German shepherd, Dobby, as “really special.” But Dobby is 14 years old—around 98 in dog years.
Kaeberlein is co-director of the Dog Aging Project, an ambitious research effort to track the aging process of tens of thousands of companion dogs across the US. He is one of a handful of scientists on a mission to improve, delay, and possibly reverse that process to help them live longer, healthier lives.
And dogs are just the beginning. One day, this research could help to prolong the lives of humans. Read the full story.
We can still have nice things
A place for comfort, fun and distraction in these weird times. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)
+ All hail the unsung women of indie sleaze.
+ It’s officially October!
+ This list of sartorial advice has been entertaining us at MIT Technology Review—how many points do you agree with?
+ Put down the expired milk, it’s got a whole lot more to give. 🥛
+ Some top tips for remembering your dreams more fully: should you want to, that is.
Everything you need to know about artificial wombs
The technology would likely be used first on infants born at 22 or 23 weeks who don’t have many other options. “You don’t want to put an infant on this device who would otherwise do well with conventional therapy,” Mychaliska says. At 22 weeks gestation, babies are tiny, often weighing less than a pound. And their lungs are still developing. When researchers looked at babies born between 2013 and 2018, survival among those who were resuscitated at 22 weeks was 30%. That number rose to nearly 56% at 23 weeks. And babies born at that stage who do survive have an increased risk of neurodevelopmental problems, cerebral palsy, mobility problems, hearing impairments, and other disabilities.
Selecting the right participants will be tricky. Some experts argue that gestational age shouldn’t be the only criteria. One complicating factor is that prognosis varies widely from center to center, and it’s improving as hospitals learn how best to treat these preemies. At the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital, for example, survival rates are much higher than average: 64% for babies born at 22 weeks. They’ve even managed to keep a handful of infants born at 21 weeks alive. “These babies are not a hopeless case. They very much can survive. They very much can thrive if you are managing them appropriately,” says Brady Thomas, a neonatologist at Stead. “Are you really going to make that much of a bigger impact by adding in this technology, and what risks might exist to those patients as you’re starting to trial it?”
Prognosis also varies widely from baby to baby depending on a variety of factors. “The girls do better than the boys. The bigger ones do better than the smaller ones,” says Mark Mercurio, a neonatologist and pediatric bioethicist at the Yale School of Medicine. So “how bad does the prognosis with current therapy need to be to justify use of an artificial womb?” That’s a question Mercurio would like to see answered.
What are the risks?
One ever-present concern in the tiniest babies is brain bleeds. “That’s due to a number of factors—a combination of their brain immaturity, and in part associated with the treatment that we provide,” Mychaliska says. Babies in an artificial womb would need to be on a blood thinner to prevent clots from forming where the tubes enter the body. “I believe that places a premature infant at very high risk for brain bleeding,” he says.
And it’s not just about the baby. To be eligible for EXTEND, infants must be delivered via cesarean section, which puts the pregnant person at higher risk for infection and bleeding. Delivery via a C-section can also have an impact on future pregnancies.
So if it works, could babies be grown entirely outside the womb?
Not anytime soon. Maybe not ever. In a paper published in 2022, Flake and his colleagues called this scenario “a technically and developmentally naive, yet sensationally speculative, pipe dream.” The problem is twofold. First, fetal development is a carefully choreographed process that relies on chemical communication between the pregnant parent’s body and the fetus. Even if researchers understood all the factors that contribute to fetal development—and they don’t—there’s no guarantee they could recreate those conditions.
The second issue is size. The artificial womb systems being developed require doctors to insert a small tube into the infant’s umbilical cord to deliver oxygenated blood. The smaller the umbilical cord, the more difficult this becomes.
What are the ethical concerns?
In the near term, there are concerns about how to ensure that researchers are obtaining proper informed consent from parents who may be desperate to save their babies. “This is an issue that comes up with lots of last-chance therapies,” says Vardit Ravitsky, a bioethicist and president of the Hastings Center, a bioethics research institute.
The Download: brain bandwidth, and artificial wombs
Last week, Elon Musk made the bold assertion that sticking electrodes in people’s heads is going to lead to a huge increase in the rate of data transfer out of, and into, human brains.
The occasion of Musk’s post was the announcement by Neuralink, his brain-computer interface company, that it was officially seeking the first volunteer to receive an implant that contains more than twice the number of electrodes than previous versions to collect more data from more nerve cells.
The entrepreneur mentioned a long-term goal of vastly increasing “bandwidth” between people, or people and machines, by a factor of 1,000 or more. But what does he mean, and is it even possible? Read the full story.
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Everything you need to know about artificial wombs
Earlier this month, US Food and Drug Administration advisors met to discuss how to move research on artificial wombs from animals into humans.
These medical devices are designed to give extremely premature infants a bit more time to develop in a womb-like environment before entering the outside world. They have been tested with hundreds of lambs (and some piglets), but animal models can’t fully predict how the technology will work for humans.