Monthly Archives: September 2007

Artificial Life Another Step Closer

Scientists a step nearer to creating artificial life

To the untrained eye, the tiny, misshapen, fatty blobs on Giovanni Murtas’s microscope slide would not look very impressive. But when the Italian scientist saw their telltale green fluorescent glint he knew he had achieved something remarkable – and taken a vital step towards building a living organism from scratch.The green glow was proof that his fragile creations were capable of making their own proteins, a crucial ability of all living things and vital for carrying out all other aspects of life.

Though only a first step, the discovery will hasten efforts by scientists to build the world’s first synthetic organism. It could also prove a significant development in the multibillion-dollar battle to exploit the technology for manufacturing commercially valuable chemicals such as drugs and biofuels or cleaning up pollution.

The achievement is a major advance for the new field of “synthetic biology”. Its proponents hope to construct simple bespoke organisms with carefully chosen components. But some campaigners worry about the new technology’s unsettling potential and argue there should be a moratorium on the research until the ethical and technological implications have been discussed more widely.

One of the field’s leading lights is the controversial scientist Craig Venter, a beach bum turned scientific entrepreneur who is better known for sequencing the human genome and scouring the oceans for unknown genes on his luxury research yacht. The research institute he founded hopes to create an artificial “minimal organism”. And he believes there is big money at stake.

In an interview with Newsweek magazine earlier this year, Dr Venter claimed that a fuel-producing microbe could become the first billion- or trillion-dollar organism. The institute has already patented a set of genes for creating such a stripped-down creature.

Elixer Of Youth Through A Simple Injection?

The ‘elixir of life’ that could soon be given by injection

The prospect of holding back the years with a simple injection could be closer than we think.Scientists have taken a step towards developing a treatment that could erase the health problems associated with ageing.

While their breakthrough relates to rogue genes behind two rare genetic diseases, the approach they used could one day be harnessed to slow down the ageing process – creating an “elixir of life”.

The research focuses on mitochondria, sausage-shaped “powerhouses” in every cell of the body except red blood cells.

They turn the food we eat into energy that can be used by the heart, muscles, brain and other parts of the body.Research has suggested their deterioration is an important cause of ageing, according to a report in New Scientist magazine.

Defects in this mitochondrial DNA are blamed for a range of rare genetic diseases, including some forms of diabetes, blindness and heart problems.

They have also been linked to ageing – suggesting that fixing the flaws could slow down the onset of old age.

However, all attempts to fix flaws by inserting healthy DNA into mitochondria – a technique known as gene therapy – have failed, with the fresh genes stubbornly staying outside the powerhouses.

Now, by labelling the functional genes with an “address code” – which effectively tells them where to go – French scientists have succeeded in smuggling them inside the mitochondria.

Once there, the pair of genes repaired the damage behind a rare form of blindness and a muscle wasting disease, says the New Scientist report.

In time, the same approach could be used to create injections of genes that will erase flaws thought to be linked to the ageing process.

Skinny Gene Discovered

Researchers say ‘skinny’ gene really exists

A team of American researchers say they may have found the “skinny” gene after they were able to manipulate obesity among worms and mice.Published in the Sept. 5 issue of the journal Cell Metabolism by researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, the report looks at the role played by a single gene in fat formation.

Greater activity in the “adipose” gene — first discovered in fruit flies 50 years ago — was found to keep fruit flies, worms and mice skinny, regardless of how much they ate.

In genetically engineered mice, researchers found that increased activity in the gene led to leaner, healther mice, even if they ate more than regular mice. Mice with reduced gene activity were fatter, less healthy and had diabetes.

The most promising result, however, seemed to be that different combinations of the gene’s variants led to a range of body types.

“This is good news for potential obesity treatments, because it’s like a volume control instead of a light switch; it can be turned up or down, not just on or off,” Graff said. “Eventually, of course, the idea is to develop drugs to target this system, but that’s in the years to come.”

Human-Animal Hybrid Embryos A Step Closer To Reality

Human-Animal Embryos A Step Closer

Scientists are today expected to be given the go-ahead to create human-animal embryos.The hybrid embryos will be produced by mixing human cells with animal eggs.

Controversially, the embryos will only be 99.9% human. Around 0.1% of the DNA will be from the animal.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority is likely to approve the work after a public consultation found the majority of people were at ease with the research.

The decision will infuriate religious groups, who say scientists are playing God.

If God’s got a problem with it, let him stop those evil scientists himself.

The hybrids will be used to generate stem cells, which could lead to new treatments for currently incurable conditions, such as Parkinson’s and motor neurone disease.

Professor Lyle Armstrong of Newcastle University has already applied for a licence to create hybrid embryos. He told Sky News that the shortage of human eggs has held back stem cell research.

“I get three to four good quality human eggs a month. But in one day I can get 200 cow eggs from a local slaughter house.

“It offers us the chance to make stem cell technology more acccessible to everyone.”

Go Solar For Less Than $600

Go Solar, Room by Room

I’d bet you thought that you’d have to spend thousands of dollars to go completely off the grid? Even with state sponsored incentives, going all solar could set you back quite a bit. What would you think about going solar, room by room!? There’s a system out there that makes going solar very affordable and you can add to it as you go! No, this won’t take you off the grid in one fell swoop, but it can get you closer to energy independence without breaking the bank!

Starfish Robot Shows Robotic Introspection And Self-Modeling

Starfish Robot Shows Robotic Introspection And Self-Modeling

A new four-legged robot can automatically synthesize a predictive model of its own topology (where and how its body parts are connected), and then successfully move around. It can also use this “proprioceptive” sense to determine if a component has been damaged, and then model new movements that take the damage into account.

If the robot is damaged, it can sense the problem and attempt to compensate. The robot has tilt and angle sensors in all of its joints; readings from these sensors are used by the robot to create a self-image. If sensors indicate that a part is missing or damaged, it changes its image of itself and moves on.

As for sf references, everybody remembers the HAL-9000 unit that ran the spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey. HAL was also able to sense problems in the ship and then get one if its servants (the human astronauts) to install new components, if necessary.

Despite their achievement, the researchers remain modest in the face of nature. “We never officially named it, but we usually refer to it as the Starfish robot, even though a real starfish has five rather than four legs,” said lead researcher Josh Bongard, now at the University of Vermont. “Also, a real starfish is much better than our robot at recovering from injury, because it can actually regrow its legs.”

See a remarkable Starfish robot video.

Many more movies and pictures of the Starfish robot can be found here.

1 Terabyte On 1 Disc

How to fit 1TB of data on one CD-sized disc

Blu-ray and HD DVD have pushed the limits of optical storage further than anyone thought possible. But a new technology has emerged which makes Blu-ray’s 50GB capacity look tiny. Mempile in Israel says it’s able to fit an incredible 1TB of data onto one “TeraDisc” which is the same size as CDs and DVDs. That’s 20 times the capacity of a maxed-out dual-layer Blu-ray disc.The incredible capacity achieved using this new technology is made possible by employing 200 5GB layers, each one only five microns apart. The discs are completely transparent to the red lasers which are used in the associated recorder.

Prototypes have already been made to store up to 800GB of data, and Mempile says it will crack the 1TB barrier before moving on to build 5TB blue laser disks.

Dr Beth Erez, Mempile’s Chief Marketing Officer says that the first 1TB disks have a lifespan of 50 years and could be on the shelves in two to three years.

On a 1TB disc, you could store:

  • 212 DVD-quality movies
  • 250,000 MP3 files
  • 1,000,000 large Word documents

Flying Saucer Goes On Sale In A Few Months

Flying saucer ‘nears US take-off’

It has been called the vehicle of the future and the ultimate way to beat the rush hour commute.It is the M 200G, otherwise known as a “flying saucer”, which is being built by a company in Davis, California called Moller International.

It says the futuristic contraption will go on sale in a few months and hopes to expand production to 250 a year.

Company representatives say it is easy to operate, with plenty of leg room and space for a passenger.

Capable of vertical take-off and landing, the craft – so far a one-off prototype – hovers like a helicopter up to 10ft off the ground. Any higher and the driver would need a pilot’s licence.

It is the brainchild of Dr Paul Moller, an aeronautics engineer who envisions a “highway in the sky” which he believes could cut conventional commuter traffic in half.

“We have this wonderful natural resource above us,” Dr Moller told the BBC.

“Look at the sky above us – how many aircraft do you see? It’s a great space that is not being utilised. That is what we plan to use. Cars are finished as a means of getting around. It’s only a matter of time.”

The flying saucer is powered by eight engines which can run on petrol, diesel or even ethanol.

For many more movies, visit the flying car movie page on