Chips are the new oil. There are no reserves.

News Feed
Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Getty Images/iStockphoto Computer chips are ubiquitous, but they’re only made in a few places. In a single day, we interact with hundreds of computer chips, most no larger than a penny. These tiny circuits power everything from smartphones and laptops to medical devices and electric vehicles, and they’re largely responsible for our increasingly computerized lives. But in recent months, the world’s dependence on these chips has also put them at the center of mounting tensions between the United States and mainland China over Taiwan. Taiwan is located just 100 miles from China’s eastern coast, and it produces the vast majority of the advanced chips used in today’s electronics. The island is a democracy with its own government, and is home to more than 20 million people. Officials in Beijing, however, claim Taiwan as part of China and have repeatedly threatened to invade and “reunify” the island with the mainland. The US does not officially recognize Taiwan’s independence, though President Joe Biden has suggested that he would send American troops to defend the island against an invasion. As a result, there’s fear that a blockade around Taiwan could create a humanitarian and trade crisis, ultimately cutting off the world’s access to tons of critical technology. “If Taiwan chipmaking were to be knocked offline, there wouldn’t be enough capacity anywhere else in the world to make up for the loss,” explains Chris Miller, an international history professor at Tufts and the author of Chip War. “Even simple chips will become difficult to access, just because our demand outstrips supply.” The world is so reliant on chips produced by Taiwan that they’ve become the new oil, according to Miller. Recent military exercises along the Taiwan Strait, the critical waterway that separates Taiwan and mainland China, have raised the possibility that China might eventually block exports out of the island, which would disrupt all sorts of technology production, though some experts say there are plenty of reasons to think that a war won’t actually happen. The chair of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, which makes nearly all of the world’s most advanced chips, has already warned that a war would leave its factories “not operable.” The US is trying to get a few steps ahead of this scenario. Earlier this summer, Biden signed the CHIPS and Science Act, a massive package that invests tens of billions of dollars to build new semiconductor factories across the US. Other countries with a history of chip manufacturing, including South Korea, Japan, and some European Union member states, have started scaling up their production capacity, too. An Apple supplier even said in February that it would start using semiconductors made in India, which is also developing its own chip industry. Still, Miller argues that these efforts won’t be enough to dull the impact of a war — a war the US and Taiwan aren’t guaranteed to win. As the past few years have painfully demonstrated, depending on a single region for critical supplies can backfire. Amid the war in Ukraine, Russia has cut off much of Europe’s access to gas, creating an energy crisis that has forced countries to restart coal plants and abandon their renewable energy goals. In the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic, China — which was home to half of the world’s mask manufacturing capacity — limited exports of medical equipment. And when the vaccine was first rolled out, the US and other rich nations prioritized inoculating their own citizens before sending supplies to other countries. As Russia’s war in Ukraine continues, the world is slowly transitioning away from oil. But the same isn’t true for chips, which will only become more critical as new technologies become more popular and require even more computing power. Electric vehicles, for example, require twice the number of chips used by traditional internal combustion vehicles, and the rise of 5G — the technology that could make remote surgeries and self-driving cars a reality — will create a surge in demand for semiconductors, too. That means the stakes are only getting higher. Recode spoke with Miller recently about the growing importance of chips in global politics. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. Rebecca Heilweil You argue that chips are the new oil. How ubiquitous are chips today, and to what extent do we depend on them in our daily lives? Chris Miller Almost anything with an on-off switch today has a chip inside. That’s true not only for things like smartphones or computers, but also for dishwashers and microwaves and cars. As we put more computing power in all sorts of devices, that requires more chips to convert signals from the real world into digits that can be processed and remembered. The typical person in the US will end up touching several hundred chips a day. The typical person hardly ever sees a chip in their entire life unless they take apart a computer, but the reality is we touch them and rely on them more than ever before. Rebecca Heilweil The computer chip was invented in the US. Taiwan now manufactures much of the world’s semiconductors and almost all of the advanced chips that governments are most interested in. How did that happen? Chris Miller Over the course of the past 50 years, but especially over the past couple of decades, the semiconductor supply chain has gotten much more specialized. So when the first chips were made by Texas Instruments, for example, or Fairchild Semiconductor in Silicon Valley, these companies did almost everything in-house. They designed chips. They produced them. They produced the machines that were needed to design chips. As chips have gotten more complex — and as the engineering needed to produce ever more semiconductors has become more specialized — you had firms emerge that focus on a specific part of the production process. Japanese firms, for example, play a major role in chemicals. US firms are particularly influential in the design of chips, as well as the production of machine tools that produce chips. Taiwan has specialized in the manufacturing of chips themselves. Companies will take a design and send it to a Taiwanese firm for production. Contract manufacturing is not unique to chips, but several decades ago, the biggest Taiwanese chipmaker, TSMC, realized that there was a potentially huge market for contract and manufacturing services. It began investing very, very heavily in trying to attract customers from Silicon Valley and offered to produce chips for them. That combination of scale investment in R&D has proven just impossible to compete with. Rebecca Heilweil So how does that play into the risks regarding China and the world’s supply of chips? Chris Miller Today, Taiwan produces, depending on how you calculate, 90 percent of processor chips. In aggregate, Taiwan is one of the biggest producers of chips in the world, so companies like Apple, for example, rely fundamentally on TSMC to produce the chips that power iPhones, iPads, or PCs because no one else can produce the chips that they need. It’s not as though they have second sources in most cases. It’s TSMC or else, which means that they’re highly reliant on peace in the Taiwan Strait. Over the past couple of years, as the military balance has shifted really dramatically in China’s direction, I think the assumption of peace going forward is being tested. The entire world economy would be dramatically hit if China were to attack Taiwan for a whole number of reasons, chips being just one of them. It’s easy to look at the biggest customers of TSMC and say the companies are most exposed — and maybe that’s true. But whether it’s autos or aviation or even chips in a dishwasher or microwave, many of these are also produced in Taiwan. Rebecca Heilweil The recent CHIPS and Science package allocates tens of billions of dollars to produce more chips in the US partly because of the risks you’re talking about with China. Will that be enough for an American chip comeback? Chris Miller It’s certainly going to have an impact in terms of getting more leading-edge production of the most advanced processor memory chips in the US. But it’s not nearly enough to dramatically reduce our reliance on Taiwan. Part of the reason why there’s more concern today — justifiably — is that unlike in prior decades, it’s now much less clear who would win a war on the Taiwan Strait. Therefore, we’re now much less certain than we were in the past that China wouldn’t attack because it’d be too costly for China to do so. Now, that’s an open question. Rebecca Heilweil Is this risk set to get worse because of the rise of 5G and electric vehicles and other emerging technology? The world is going to need more chips in the coming years and decades. Chris Miller Our reliance on Taiwan is not going to decrease. It will be a little bit less than it otherwise would have been thanks to the CHIPS Act, but the reality is we’re going to be dependent on Taiwan. The Chinese government is pouring many tens of billions of dollars — far more than CHIPS Act funding — into its own chip industry. Although the Chinese remain far behind the leading edge in terms of the technological level of chips they can produce, they’re going to vastly increase the capacity in producing what’s called lagging-edge chips: the types of chips you might find in a car or a consumer device. We’re going to continue to be reliant on chips from Taiwan, but also there’s a risk that we might rely more on chips from China in the future, too. Rebecca Heilweil Chipmaking isn’t exactly the most environmentally friendly production process. How should we be thinking about the environmental impacts of chip manufacturing, especially as companies try to scale up? Chris Miller One of the factors that led to the shifting of chipmaking offshore of the US was actually that the US imposed stricter environmental rules over time. There are a lot of really toxic chemicals that you use in chipmaking, and mitigating that is expensive. The bigger challenge is electricity and water consumption, because chipmaking requires a ton of both. On top of that, the more chips you have, the more devices you have that require electricity as well. Rebecca Heilweil For decades, we’ve seen chips getting more advanced. Is Moore’s Law — loosely, the idea that transistors’ chips will keep getting smaller and smaller, which allows chips to become more and more powerful over time — coming to an end? And what would that mean for the future of tech? Chris Miller What we can say is that Moore’s Law faces cost pressures that it hasn’t faced in a long time. It’s got at least a half-decade, probably a decade, to run in terms of further transistors shrinkage before we hit real, potential physical limits as to how small transistors can get. But then in terms of how much computing power you can get out of the individual piece of silicon, there are things you can do besides shrinking transistors to get more computing. There are all sorts of innovations in how you package chips together that will make them faster and more energy intensive, without necessarily relying solely on transistor shrinkage. Right now, there are so many people who have built up their careers and expertise around how to make silicon chips work really, really well. There are a couple of places where you could say there’s change happening. The big cloud computing firms like Microsoft, Amazon, and Google are all designing their own chips now, which they hadn’t previously done. Because so much of computing today is hosted on Amazon’s or Google’s cloud, the reality is that now everyone is becoming a user in some way of Amazon chips or Google chips. The second shift that’s underway is electric vehicles. If you look at a Tesla, for example, they’ve got a lot of chips in the car and a lot of complicated, cutting-edge chips. We’re gonna see more and more cars with more and more cutting-edge chips, doing more and more things in the future. Rebecca Heilweil We keep hearing about semiconductors and technology in the news. What should people understand about this industry? Chris Miller Making chips is an extraordinary manufacturing process that requires lots and lots of really complicated machine tools to actually move atoms around in a way that lays out a billion or ten billion transistors on a chip. Most of us don’t think enough about the materiality of the manufacturing behind the digital world. Some of the tooling here is really, really extraordinary and doesn’t fit into our mental model of how the digital world works. But in fact, the digital world works only because we’ve got this extraordinary control over the material world, at least as it relates to silica. This story was first published in the Recode newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one!

Read the full story here.
Photos courtesy of

Where did the PFAS in your blood come from? These computer models offer clues

Downstream of a Chemours fluorochemical manufacturing plant on the Cape Fear River in North Carolina, people living in Brunswick and New Hanover counties suffer from higher-than-normal rates of brain tumors, breast cancers and other forms of rare — and accelerated — diseases. Residents now know this isn’t a coincidence. It’s from years of PFAS contamination from Chemours. It wasn’t easy to make the connection. More than a decade of water testing and lawsuits identified the link between aggressive cancers and per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS – a class of more than 9,000 toxic and persistent man-made compounds known informally as “forever chemicals.” They’re commonly found in nonstick cookware, water-resistant clothing, firefighting foam, cosmetics, food packaging and recently in school uniforms and insecticides. The difficulty of tracing these chemicals to a specific source is that Americans — 97% of us, by one estimate — are exposed to potentially thousands of PFAS. New research published in Science of the Total Environment now finds that tracing models can identify sources of PFAS contamination from people’s blood samples. Instead of using environmental measures of PFAS as a proxy for how people are exposed, the methods use blood samples as a more direct way to map people’s exposure. “If this works, it would allow us to identify, without any prior knowledge, what people are being exposed to and how they’re being exposed to it,” Dylan Wallis, a lead author of the paper and toxicologist formerly at North Carolina State University, told EHN. The research, while not yet perfect, marks the beginning of what could become a wide-scale method of determining where the PFAS in our blood came from—such as our food, drinking water or use of nonstick cookware—and how much of it came from each source. But its effectiveness hinges on the need to collect more comprehensive data on where PFAS occurs in people’s bodies, the environment and sources. If scientists can collect this data, then these methods would be able to draw a roadmap for people’s exposure, allowing us to pinpoint problem areas, avoid contamination and implement regulatory changes. PFAS in blood samplesFor this tracing method to work, scientists need an idea of which compounds exist in air, water, food and everyday products in a determined community. First, they have to know where to look for PFAS. This study used data from previous research to identify the types of PFAS in drinking water. Then, they test blood samples for which PFAS are in people’s bodies—although using blood alone gives us only part of the contamination picture, Carla Ng, a chemical and biological engineer at University of Pittsburgh, told EHN. Once they match PFAS proportions in blood to what’s in their drinking water, as in this study, they can gain clues to which sources contributed the chemicals showing up in people’s blood.“You start to build this picture of what are the inputs, what’s the material they’re getting their exposure from, and then what’s in their blood,” Ng, who was not involved in the study, explained. The new study analyzed blood samples taken in 2018 and 2020 from residents in Wilmington, North Carolina, and three towns in El Paso County, Colorado. Both communities are near well-known PFAS polluters: the Chemours facility in North Carolina, which manufactures fluoropolymers for nonstick and waterproof products, and the Peterson Space Force Base in Colorado, which uses PFAS-containing firefighting foam, also called AFFFs. Related: PFAS on our shelves and in our bodiesThe team used computer models to identify 20 PFAS compounds from residents’ blood samples and then grouped them in categories representing different sources. Some are easy to identify because manufacturers often use a specific type of PFAS. For example, the compounds found in firefighting foam have a unique signature, like a fingerprint, making Peterson Space Force Base the obvious culprit. But more diffuse sources of PFAS, such as those in dust or food, are harder to pin down because scientists aren’t sure which PFAS are in them or where they come from.In North Carolina and Colorado, the sources were more obvious, allowing the research team to test models’ ability to identify sources. However, to conduct similar research on a national scale is not so simple. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey has tested levels of PFAS in blood samples nationwide since 1999, but it only tests for a specific list of PFAS, which could overlook the full spectrum of compounds. Drinking water in both locations in the study shows high levels of fluoroethers and fluoropolymers, many of which are “legacy” PFAS, meaning they have been phased out of production for at least a decade but are still found in drinking water. Because the chemical bonds are so strong, they persist in the environment for years, which is why they show up in blood samples long after companies have stopped using or manufacturing them. Long-chain PFAS like PFOA and PFOS, which are the most-studied compounds with a longer structure of carbon-fluorine bonds, are harder to break down, and they bond to proteins in the blood more easily than short-chain compounds.“These last a really long time,” Wallis said of long-chain PFAS, which were recorded at levels several times higher than national averages. “If you were drinking a really high level of it 40 years ago, you would still have really high levels of it 40 years later.”A pollution snapshotWallis said they were surprised the models worked because they have never been used for PFAS before. They were built to trace other contaminants in the environment, like particles in air pollution, rather than in people.Tracing PFAS is more challenging than tracing air pollution for several reasons, Xindi Hu, a lead data scientist at the research organization Mathematica, told EHN. Hu conducted earlier research using a different type of computer analysis of blood samples to identify the main sources of PFAS contamination in the Faroe Islands. Many PFAS lack distinct chemical fingerprints to tell researchers exactly where a particular compound came from, Hu said. But in the study led by Wallis, the chemical fingerprints from the Space Force base in Colorado and fluorochemical facility in North Carolina are well-known.“When you take a blood sample, it’s really just a snapshot,” she said. “So how do you translate this snapshot of concentration back to the course of the entire exposure history?”That’s partly why the new paper’s authors conducted this study: The more compounds that are correctly linked to a source, the better these models will work, Wallis said. In essence, they need a better database of PFAS compounds so the models know how to connect the dots. PFAS also react differently in the human body than in the environment, and scientists still don’t fully understand how we metabolize different compounds. Shorter-chain PFAS, for example, are more likely to appear in urine samples than in blood because they are water-soluble, said Pittsburgh’s Ng, who studies how PFAS react in humans and wildlife. “If you’re doing everything on the basis of blood levels, it may not tell you everything you need to know about exposure and potential toxicity,” she said, adding that PFAS could also accumulate in the liver, brain, lungs and other locations where it’s difficult to take samples. Worse, more modern PFAS with carbon-hydrogen bonds can actually transform into other types of compounds as the body metabolizes them, which could give a false impression of what people are exposed to. “The key to identifying a good tracer is a molecule that doesn’t transform,” Ng said. Some PFAS are great tracers, she added, but “the more transformable your PFAS is in general, the poorer the tracer is going to be.”That’s why newer PFAS compounds like GenX were not detected in blood samples or used as tracers in the recent study. “These models aren’t going to account for everything,” Wallis said. “No model is.” Stopping the contamination Wallis and their co-authors said they hope the models can become more accurate for less exposed communities in the future. With more data, it would be easier to suggest what to avoid instead of guessing where PFAS exposures come from, Wallis said, adding that it could lead to more protective regulations.Although these models can vaguely help identify where compounds might come from in a particular community, it’s not a definitive solution, Alissa Cordner, an environmental sociologist and co-director of the PFAS Project Lab who was not involved in the recent study, told EHN. Even if there’s no immediate application of these methods, identifying where PFAS are is the first step.“Everybody can point their fingers at other possible sources of contamination,” Cordner said. “The best way to address this is not to try to, after the fact, link people’s exposure to a contamination source. It’s to stop the contamination.”

Downstream of a Chemours fluorochemical manufacturing plant on the Cape Fear River in North Carolina, people living in Brunswick and New Hanover counties suffer from higher-than-normal rates of brain tumors, breast cancers and other forms of rare — and accelerated — diseases. Residents now know this isn’t a coincidence. It’s from years of PFAS contamination from Chemours. It wasn’t easy to make the connection. More than a decade of water testing and lawsuits identified the link between aggressive cancers and per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS – a class of more than 9,000 toxic and persistent man-made compounds known informally as “forever chemicals.” They’re commonly found in nonstick cookware, water-resistant clothing, firefighting foam, cosmetics, food packaging and recently in school uniforms and insecticides. The difficulty of tracing these chemicals to a specific source is that Americans — 97% of us, by one estimate — are exposed to potentially thousands of PFAS. New research published in Science of the Total Environment now finds that tracing models can identify sources of PFAS contamination from people’s blood samples. Instead of using environmental measures of PFAS as a proxy for how people are exposed, the methods use blood samples as a more direct way to map people’s exposure. “If this works, it would allow us to identify, without any prior knowledge, what people are being exposed to and how they’re being exposed to it,” Dylan Wallis, a lead author of the paper and toxicologist formerly at North Carolina State University, told EHN. The research, while not yet perfect, marks the beginning of what could become a wide-scale method of determining where the PFAS in our blood came from—such as our food, drinking water or use of nonstick cookware—and how much of it came from each source. But its effectiveness hinges on the need to collect more comprehensive data on where PFAS occurs in people’s bodies, the environment and sources. If scientists can collect this data, then these methods would be able to draw a roadmap for people’s exposure, allowing us to pinpoint problem areas, avoid contamination and implement regulatory changes. PFAS in blood samplesFor this tracing method to work, scientists need an idea of which compounds exist in air, water, food and everyday products in a determined community. First, they have to know where to look for PFAS. This study used data from previous research to identify the types of PFAS in drinking water. Then, they test blood samples for which PFAS are in people’s bodies—although using blood alone gives us only part of the contamination picture, Carla Ng, a chemical and biological engineer at University of Pittsburgh, told EHN. Once they match PFAS proportions in blood to what’s in their drinking water, as in this study, they can gain clues to which sources contributed the chemicals showing up in people’s blood.“You start to build this picture of what are the inputs, what’s the material they’re getting their exposure from, and then what’s in their blood,” Ng, who was not involved in the study, explained. The new study analyzed blood samples taken in 2018 and 2020 from residents in Wilmington, North Carolina, and three towns in El Paso County, Colorado. Both communities are near well-known PFAS polluters: the Chemours facility in North Carolina, which manufactures fluoropolymers for nonstick and waterproof products, and the Peterson Space Force Base in Colorado, which uses PFAS-containing firefighting foam, also called AFFFs. Related: PFAS on our shelves and in our bodiesThe team used computer models to identify 20 PFAS compounds from residents’ blood samples and then grouped them in categories representing different sources. Some are easy to identify because manufacturers often use a specific type of PFAS. For example, the compounds found in firefighting foam have a unique signature, like a fingerprint, making Peterson Space Force Base the obvious culprit. But more diffuse sources of PFAS, such as those in dust or food, are harder to pin down because scientists aren’t sure which PFAS are in them or where they come from.In North Carolina and Colorado, the sources were more obvious, allowing the research team to test models’ ability to identify sources. However, to conduct similar research on a national scale is not so simple. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey has tested levels of PFAS in blood samples nationwide since 1999, but it only tests for a specific list of PFAS, which could overlook the full spectrum of compounds. Drinking water in both locations in the study shows high levels of fluoroethers and fluoropolymers, many of which are “legacy” PFAS, meaning they have been phased out of production for at least a decade but are still found in drinking water. Because the chemical bonds are so strong, they persist in the environment for years, which is why they show up in blood samples long after companies have stopped using or manufacturing them. Long-chain PFAS like PFOA and PFOS, which are the most-studied compounds with a longer structure of carbon-fluorine bonds, are harder to break down, and they bond to proteins in the blood more easily than short-chain compounds.“These last a really long time,” Wallis said of long-chain PFAS, which were recorded at levels several times higher than national averages. “If you were drinking a really high level of it 40 years ago, you would still have really high levels of it 40 years later.”A pollution snapshotWallis said they were surprised the models worked because they have never been used for PFAS before. They were built to trace other contaminants in the environment, like particles in air pollution, rather than in people.Tracing PFAS is more challenging than tracing air pollution for several reasons, Xindi Hu, a lead data scientist at the research organization Mathematica, told EHN. Hu conducted earlier research using a different type of computer analysis of blood samples to identify the main sources of PFAS contamination in the Faroe Islands. Many PFAS lack distinct chemical fingerprints to tell researchers exactly where a particular compound came from, Hu said. But in the study led by Wallis, the chemical fingerprints from the Space Force base in Colorado and fluorochemical facility in North Carolina are well-known.“When you take a blood sample, it’s really just a snapshot,” she said. “So how do you translate this snapshot of concentration back to the course of the entire exposure history?”That’s partly why the new paper’s authors conducted this study: The more compounds that are correctly linked to a source, the better these models will work, Wallis said. In essence, they need a better database of PFAS compounds so the models know how to connect the dots. PFAS also react differently in the human body than in the environment, and scientists still don’t fully understand how we metabolize different compounds. Shorter-chain PFAS, for example, are more likely to appear in urine samples than in blood because they are water-soluble, said Pittsburgh’s Ng, who studies how PFAS react in humans and wildlife. “If you’re doing everything on the basis of blood levels, it may not tell you everything you need to know about exposure and potential toxicity,” she said, adding that PFAS could also accumulate in the liver, brain, lungs and other locations where it’s difficult to take samples. Worse, more modern PFAS with carbon-hydrogen bonds can actually transform into other types of compounds as the body metabolizes them, which could give a false impression of what people are exposed to. “The key to identifying a good tracer is a molecule that doesn’t transform,” Ng said. Some PFAS are great tracers, she added, but “the more transformable your PFAS is in general, the poorer the tracer is going to be.”That’s why newer PFAS compounds like GenX were not detected in blood samples or used as tracers in the recent study. “These models aren’t going to account for everything,” Wallis said. “No model is.” Stopping the contamination Wallis and their co-authors said they hope the models can become more accurate for less exposed communities in the future. With more data, it would be easier to suggest what to avoid instead of guessing where PFAS exposures come from, Wallis said, adding that it could lead to more protective regulations.Although these models can vaguely help identify where compounds might come from in a particular community, it’s not a definitive solution, Alissa Cordner, an environmental sociologist and co-director of the PFAS Project Lab who was not involved in the recent study, told EHN. Even if there’s no immediate application of these methods, identifying where PFAS are is the first step.“Everybody can point their fingers at other possible sources of contamination,” Cordner said. “The best way to address this is not to try to, after the fact, link people’s exposure to a contamination source. It’s to stop the contamination.”

In search of the principles of life

Associate Professor Otto Cordero is looking for the fundamental constraints that shape microbial ecosystems.

MIT Associate Professor Otto Cordero has always gravitated toward the most basic questions of life. How do ecosystems assemble? Why do species divide labor in nature? He believes these are some of the most central questions for understanding life. “The challenge is discovering something that applies across organisms and across environments — now we’re talking about a fundamental constraint of life,” says Cordero, who recently earned tenure in the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “I really care about that type of thing. That’s where it ends for me. Why are things the way they are? Why do they look the way they do and function the way they do? It’s because there are constraints. It’s evolution. It’s how the world works. Discovering those principals is the ultimate prize.” Cordero’s search has led him into areas of research he never could have imagined. Along the way, he’s made progress toward understanding microbial ecosystems through the broad factors that dictate their composition and behavior. “I talk to a lot of physicists, and they all tell the same story,” Cordero says, smiling. “Many years ago, there were people looking at the molecules of a gas, trying to predict where each one will be, and then somebody at some point figured out there were master variables: pressure, volume, and temperature, and they all relate to each other very nicely. Now they have the gas law, and everything makes sense once you understand those variables. It’s unclear if master variables like that exist in biology, and even more so in microbial ecology, but it’s certainly worth looking for them.” Embracing chance Cordero was raised by his mother in Guayaquil, Ecuador, where he says scientific activity was sparse. “I never met a scientist in my life,” Cordero says. “At my university in Ecuador, there was one teacher who had a PhD, and everybody called him doctor.” Although no one in Cordero’s family had gone to college, his mother prioritized his education, and Cordero gained an appreciation for reading and learning from his grandfather. Those influences led him to a technical college for his undergraduate degree. Cordero’s childhood was humble — there were days he had to borrow 25 cents just to catch a bus to campus. But a pivotal moment came when he received a scholarship to attend Utrecht University for graduate school in the Netherlands. “Everything is serendipitous,” Cordero says. “I tell my students when I look back, I could never have predicted where I’d be in three to five years.” Up to that point, Cordero hadn’t met many people outside of Ecuador, but he jokes that he met someone from every country in Europe within a week. He’d go on to make friends from around the world. While majoring in artificial intelligence as a master’s student, Cordero became interested in algorithms that described the organization of organisms like insects. One day he was searching through papers on the subject when a Dutch name caught his eye. It turned out to be a professor in the building next to him. He hurried over and met the professor, Paulien Hogeweg, who was studying fundamental questions of life using computational biology. Cordero fell in love with the subject, and Hogeweg would become his PhD advisor. Serendipity struck again when Cordero began his postdoctoral work at MIT, where he worked under longtime MIT professor Martin Polz, who is now a professor at the University of Vienna. “I ended up opening this area of research for myself that I never imagined before,” Cordero says. “I started to study microbial interactions — essentially how different strains or species of bacteria interact in the environment.” Through that work, Cordero uncovered mechanisms microbes use to work together or kill off competing species, which have major implications for microbial ecosystems and perhaps also large biogeochemical processes like the carbon cycle. “From there, I was an expert in microbial interactions and evolution,” Cordero says. “I was working on exciting projects, and when that happens at MIT the environment lifts you up. Everybody wants to talk to you about the next idea. It’s stimulating. I enjoy that very much. The dynamics and exposure here are unrivaled. I feel like I go to a talk and I know what the next big-impact paper is going to be.” Cordero joined the faculty at MIT in 2015, and he’s continued studying microbes to explore how biological systems function and evolve. In keeping with that mission, in 2017 Cordero helped assemble an interdisciplinary group of researchers from around the world to look for universal principles of biology that could help explain and predict the behavior of microbial systems. The resulting collaboration, called Principles of Microbial Ecosystems (PRIME), has made progress identifying environmental factors and constraints that help shape all ecosystems. For instance, PRIME researchers have profiled the metabolic processes of hundreds of species of microbes to place them into broader metabolic classes that can be used to accurately model and predict the behavior of ecosystems. “Trying to make sense of the diversity of microorganisms, or any organism, in an environment is really complex, so the natural instinct is to start with little things — to see what one organism does,” Cordero says. “I wanted to look for things that could be generalized. Is there some sort of principal that helps explain or predict why communities assemble this way, or what we should expect in this environment or that environment? We see these broad patterns, and it begs the question of what the right variables are to study. Things become much simpler and more predictable when you identify those right variables.” Focusing on the bigger picture Cordero says he wants to break stereotypes about academics, like that they all come from elite schools and affluent families. He also wants to show students that researchers can have fun while working hard. Before the pandemic, Cordero played in a band with students from his department that featured two PhD students on guitar, a postdoctoral drummer, an MBA on the trumpet, and a master’s student singing. “That was the highlight of the week for me,” Cordero says. “Hopefully we bring it back!” Cordero’s personal life has also gotten a bit busier since the start of the pandemic — he now has a 2-year-old and 5-month-old. Overall, whether in his personal life or work, Cordero tries to focus on the big picture. “When you sequence [the genome] of something, you get this long list of taxa with Latin names, but that’s not really the most important information,” Cordero says. “The vision is that one day — hopefully not too far into the future — we can transform that information into more functional variables. [This goes back to] the pressure-volume-temperature analogy. Maybe these ecosystems can be understood with simple models, and maybe we can predict what they will do in the future. That would be a huge game-changer.”

Suggested Viewing

Join us to forge
a sustainable future

Our team is always growing.
Become a partner, volunteer, sponsor, or intern today.
Let us know how you would like to get involved!

CONTACT US

sign up for our mailing list to stay informed on the latest films and environmental headlines.

Subscribers receive a free day pass for streaming Cinema Verde.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.