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Just For the Tech of It: Martian crops and dinosaur chickens

This week on Just For The Tech Of It: Scientists in the Netherlands published the results from a small agricultural study that they conducted with simulated Martian soil. The experiment was pretty straightforward. Researchers first worked with NASA to mix up a special soil substitute that matched the composition of Martian topsoil, and then planted a bunch of different edible plants in it to see if they’d grow.

The first time they tried it the experiment failed miserably, but when they added a little bit of manure to the soil and tried again, all 10 of the test crops flourished. It was much more than just potatoes, too. Scientists were actually able to grow things like tomatoes, spinach, and even quinoa. This is great news for the first mars colony, because it means that it probably won’t be too difficult to cultivate crops on the red planet. Check out the full article here.

Next up, as odd as it seems, Facebook is very much involved in the development of artificial intelligence. The company actually has an entire division dedicated to AI research, and they already use a bunch of artificial neural networks to do things like photo recognition and auto-tagging on Facebook. But lately they’ve been doing something different.

In an effort to help these artificial neural networks better understand language, Facebook has been feeding them hundreds of classic children’s books, and then training them to recognize relationships between characters, places, and events. The idea is that by understanding contextual relationships between elements of these stories, the neural network will become more adept at understand interactions between Facebook users. Head over to our full article to learn more.

And finally, news broke late this week that scientists from the University of Chile have created genetically modified chickens that grow velociraptor legs instead of chicken legs. Don’t freak out though, it’s not quite what you think. Thankfully, there aren’t chickens running around Chile with big, leathery raptor legs right now. The chicken’s legs aren’t any bigger than normal; they just have a bone structure that’s more similar to a raptor than it is to a chicken.

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The amazing thing is, in order to achieve this, they didn’t do the whole Jurassic Park thing and splice the chicken’s DNA with raptor DNA that they sucked out of a fossilized mosquito. In fact, they didn’t add any new genetic material at all. Instead, they actually just silenced a gene that chickens already have. Because velociraptors are the ancestors of modern chickens, scientists just had to turn back the genetic clock and remove a mutation that made the leg grow differently.