Monthly Archives: September 2008

Turning Bacteria into Plastic Factories

Escherichia coli (E. coli) can give you a severe case of food poisoning or, with a little genetic engineering, a useful plastic. Scientists at San Diego–based Genomatica, Inc., have announced success in manipulating the bacteria to directly produce butanediol (BDO), a chemical compound used to make everything from spandex to car bumpers, thereby providing a more energy-efficient way of making it without oil or natural gas.

“We have engineered the organism such that it has to secrete that product in order for it to grow,” says bioengineer Christophe Schilling, president and co-founder of the company, launched in 2000 to develop such chemical-producing microbes. “The interests of the organism are aligned with our interests: It grows faster when it produces more.”

The E. coli can be grown in large fermentation tanks, exactly like those used to brew ethanol from corn, and have also been genetically tweaked to tolerate high concentrations of BDO in their water. “Originally, BDO was toxic to E. coli at fairly low levels but we evolved the organism such that it now tolerates the concentration we need it to grow at,” Schilling says. “We grow the bacteria in sugar and water to produce the product, then purify and separate that product out of that water.”

Schilling and his colleagues are attempting to produce BDO first precisely because current methods of making it require are so energy-intensive. “You need some significant energy,” says chemist Herbert Exner, an executive in charge of producing BDO and other chemicals in the U.S. at Germany-based chemical giant BASF, one of the largest BDO manufacturers in the world.

In addition, BDO itself is getting more expensive, rising from below $1 to around $1.22 per pound for bulk orders, Exner says. “Natural gas and oil peaked in the last 12 months and all processes are either gas or oil related,” he says. “Therefore, by nature, the raw material costs went up, so also the prices for BDO went up.”

Cost will be the ultimate factor in whether this someday becomes a widely used plastic-making process; Genomatica says it’s not sure how much its E. coli–produced BDO will cost, noting that results thus far have been confined to the lab.

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Solar Breakthrough – 500 Times More Energy Captured

A new invention could revolutionize solar energy – and it was made by a 12-year-old in Beaverton.

Despite his age, William Yuan has already studied nuclear fusion and nanotechnology, and he is on his way to solving the energy crisis.

It all started with Legos – after he learned nanotechnology to make robots take off. The seventh grader then got an idea inspired by the sun.

“Solar it seems underused, and there are only a few problems with it,” Yuan said.

Encouraged by his Meadow Park Middle School science teacher, the 12-year-old developed a 3D solar cell.

“Regular solar cells are only 2D and only allow light interaction once,” he said.

And his cell can absorb both visible and UV light.

“I started to realize I was actually onto something,” Yuan said.

At first, he couldn’t believe his calculations.

“This solar cell can’t be generating this much electricity, it can’t be absorbing this much extra light,” he recalled thinking.

If he is right, solar panels with his 3D cells would provide 500 times more light absorption than commercially-available solar cells and nine times more than cutting-edge 3D solar cells.

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It’s amazing that you can make this sort of discoveries in calculations only.

Just like Einstein, this kid couldn’t believe the outcome of his own calculations.

Einstein’s calculations turned out to be correct. Let’s hope this kid will have the same destiny.

Biologists on the Verge of Creating New Form of Life

A team of biologists and chemists is closing in on bringing non-living matter to life.

It’s not as Frankensteinian as it sounds. Instead, a lab led by Jack Szostak, a molecular biologist at Harvard Medical School, is building simple cell models that can almost be called life.

Szostak’s protocells are built from fatty molecules that can trap bits of nucleic acids that contain the source code for replication. Combined with a process that harnesses external energy from the sun or chemical reactions, they could form a self-replicating, evolving system that satisfies the conditions of life, but isn’t anything like life on earth now, but might represent life as it began or could exist elsewhere in the universe.

While his latest work remains unpublished, Szostak described preliminary new success in getting protocells with genetic information inside them to replicate at the XV International Conference on the Origin of Life in Florence, Italy, last week. The replication isn’t wholly autonomous, so it’s not quite artificial life yet, but it is as close as anyone has ever come to turning chemicals into biological organisms.

“We’ve made more progress on how the membrane of a protocell could grow and divide,” Szostak said in a phone interview. “What we can do now is copy a limited set of simple [genetic] sequences, but we need to be able to copy arbitrary sequences so that sequences could evolve that do something useful.”

By doing “something useful” for the cell, these genes would launch the new form of life down the Darwinian evolutionary path similar to the one that our oldest living ancestors must have traveled. Though where selective pressure will lead the new form of life is impossible to know.

“Once we can get a replicating environment, we’re hoping to experimentally determine what can evolve under those conditions,” said Sheref Mansy, a former member of Szostak’s lab and now a chemist at Denver University.

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Japan university gets patent for stem cell breakthrough

The move is aimed at preventing a pharmaceutical company from taking its own patent and then seeking money from researchers for their work, university officials said.

Teams at Kyoto University and at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in the United States last year discovered how to use skin to produce stem cells — which can develop into various organs or nerves.

The finding was hailed by the Vatican and US President George W. Bush because it can circumvent an ethical row over conventional stem cell research using human embryos.

“It is important for the university to keep a patent so it can conduct medical research and treatment at low costs in the future,” said Naoko Takasu, who is in charge of intellectual property issues for the university.

She said it was the first patent in the world for stem cells and that the university in western Japan would also seek patents in other major developed countries.

Shinya Yamanaka, the head of the research team, said he was “delighted” at the issuance of the patent.

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New E-Newspaper Reader Echoes Look of the Paper

The electronic newspaper, a large portable screen that is constantly updated with the latest news, has been a prop in science fiction for ages. It also figures in the dreams of newspaper publishers struggling with rising production and delivery costs, lower circulation and decreased ad revenue from their paper product.

While the dream device remains on the drawing board, Plastic Logic will introduce publicly on Monday its version of an electronic newspaper reader: a lightweight plastic screen that mimics the look — but not the feel — of a printed newspaper.

The device, which is unnamed, uses the same technology as the Sony eReader and Amazon.com’s Kindle, a highly legible black-and-white display developed by the E Ink Corporation. While both of those devices are intended primarily as book readers, Plastic Logic’s device, which will be shown at an emerging technology trade show in San Diego, has a screen more than twice as large. The size of a piece of copier paper, it can be continually updated via a wireless link, and can store and display hundreds of pages of newspapers, books and documents.

Richard Archuleta, the chief executive of Plastic Logic, said the display was big enough to provide a newspaperlike layout. “Even though we have positioned this for business documents, newspapers is what everyone asks for,” Mr. Archuleta said.

The reader will go on sale in the first half of next year. Plastic Logic will not announce which news organization will display its articles on it until the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, when it will also reveal the price.

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The super vaccine that protects you from all types of flu for LIFE

A super-vaccine that could give permanent protection against all forms of flu is being developed by British doctors.

The once-in-a-lifetime vaccine could do away with the need for an annual jab, according to researchers at Oxford University.

At present, the current jab has to be given every winter to match different circulating strains.

If successful, the new vaccine could be a key weapon against a flu pandemic because stockpiles could be made in advance.

Official estimates of the impact of such a pandemic in Britain show it could lead to 750,000 deaths, with more than six million children affected, including 750,000 under five.

Lead researcher Dr Sarah Gilbert said the vaccine could be used routinely in as little as five years, once tests had been done to ensure its safety and efficacy.

She said a universal vaccine would drastically change the way flu vaccine is used.

‘With having to make new vaccine every year, there’s never enough to go around,’ she said.

‘With this vaccine, we could end up having pretty much everyone vaccinated  –  a situation more like measles, where you don’t really need it any more.

‘Children would be protected, we’d see economic benefits through reduced sickness in people of working age, and the elderly, who respond less well to vaccination, would be better off through lack of exposure to flu.’

Dr Gilbert added: ‘The current approach to influenza vaccination is unsatisfactory for use against seasonal influenza, and of little use when new types of flu begin to infect humans from birds.

‘It leaves manufacturers with a few months to produce the necessary stocks, the vaccine has to be administered to at risk populations within a short time window, and those receiving the injection will all have to be vaccinated again the following year.’

The latest approach follows successful tests of another universal vaccine by scientists at Cambridge biotech firm Acambis.

Trials on healthy adults in the U.S. showed the jab is safe, causing no side effects other than the occasional red arm and high temperature associated with all vaccines.

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Intel ready to announce six-core chip

Intel is expected to announce the “Dunnington” processor later this month, the first six-core processor and last of its Penryn-class chips.

Intel on September 15 is expected to roll out the Intel Xeon 7400 series Dunnington processor targeted at the server market, the final member of the “Penryn” family of processors, according to sources at server vendors. Penryn will be followed by the Nehalem microarchitecture, due to appear initially as the Core i7 processor in the fourth quarter.

Server vendors announcing products will include Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard, and Dell, according to Intel senior vice presiden Pat Gelsinger, speaking at the Intel Developer Forum last month. Other server makers such as IBM and Unisys are also expected to have systems.

The Xeon 7400 boasts significantly better performance due to its large 16MB cache memory and half a dozen cores

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Prevailing Theory of Aging Challenged in Stanford Worm Study

Age may not be rust after all. Specific genetic instructions drive aging in worms, report researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Their discovery contradicts the prevailing theory that aging is a buildup of tissue damage akin to rust, and implies science might eventually halt or even reverse the ravages of age.

“We were really surprised,” said Stuart Kim, PhD, professor of developmental biology and of genetics, who is the senior author of the research.

Kim’s lab examined the regulation of aging in C. elegans, a millimeter-long nematode worm whose simple body and small number of genes make it a useful tool for biologists. The worms age rapidly: their maximum life span is about two weeks.

Comparing young worms to old worms, Kim’s team discovered age-related shifts in levels of three transcription factors, the molecular switches that turn genes on and off. These shifts trigger genetic pathways that transform young worms into geezers. The findings will appear in the July 24 issue of the journal Cell.

The question of what causes aging has spawned competing schools of thought. One side says inborn genetic programs make organisms grow old. This theory has had trouble gaining traction because it implies that aging evolved, that natural selection pushed older organisms down a path of deterioration. However, natural selection works by favoring genes that help organisms produce lots of offspring. After reproduction ends, genes are beyond natural selection’s reach, so scientists argued that aging couldn’t be genetically programmed.

The alternate theory holds that aging is an inevitable consequence of accumulated wear and tear: Toxins, free-radical molecules, DNA-damaging radiation, disease and stress ravage the body to the point it can’t rebound. So far, this theory has dominated aging research.

But the Stanford team’s findings told a different story. “Our data just didn’t fit the current model of damage accumulation, and so we had to consider the alternative model of developmental drift,” Kim said.

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Growing Neural Implants

Conductive polymer coatings that weave their way into implanted tissue might one day improve the performance of medical implants, such as cochlear implants and brain stimulators used to treat Parkinson’s disease. In early studies, neural interfaces coated with an electrically conductive polymer outperformed conventional metal counterparts. Scientists at the University of Michigan hope that the material’s novel properties will help lessen the tissue damage caused by medical implants and boost long-term function.

Use of devices that are surgically implanted into the brain or other parts of the nervous system is growing rapidly. Cochlear implants, which help deaf people hear, and deep brain stimulation, which relieves symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, for example, are approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Both work by stimulating nerve cells via an implanted electrode. Devices that record and translate neural activity are also under development for people with severe paralysis.

But as use of neural implants grows, so does concern over the damage that those devices can impose on neural tissue. Insertion of the rigid metal electrode into soft tissue triggers a cascade of inflammatory signals, damaging or killing neurons and triggering a scar to form around the metal. “We hope to come up with a way to communicate across the scar layer and send information to and from the device in a way that is as friendly as possible,” says David Martin, a materials scientists at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, who is leading the research into the polymer coatings.

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Star Trek warp drive is a possibility, say scientists

Two physicists have boldly gone where no reputable scientists should go and devised a new scheme to travel faster than the speed of light.

The advance could mean that Star Trek fantasies of interstellar civilisations and voyages powered by warp drive are now no longer the exclusive domain of science fiction writers.

In the long running television series created by Gene Roddenberry, the warp drive was invented by Zefram Cochrane, who began his epic project in 2053 in Bozeman, Montana.

Now Dr Gerald Cleaver, associate professor of physics at Baylor, and Richard Obousy have come up with a new twist on an existing idea to produce a warp drive that they believe can travel faster than the speed of light, without breaking the laws of physics.

In their scheme, in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, a starship could “warp” space so that it shrinks ahead of the vessel and expands behind it.

By pushing the departure point many light years backwards while simultaneously bringing distant stars and other destinations closer, the warp drive effectively transports the starship from place to place at faster-than-light speeds.

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