Category Archives: biotechnology

Researchers Find That Genes Determine Brain’s Processing Speed

In a study published recently in the Journal of Neuroscience, UCLA neurology professor Paul Thompson and colleagues used a new type of brain-imaging scanner to show that intelligence is strongly influenced by the quality of the brain’s axons, or wiring that sends signals throughout the brain. The faster the signaling, the faster the brain processes information. And since the integrity of the brain’s wiring is influenced by genes, the genes we inherit play a far greater role in intelligence than was previously thought.

Genes appear to influence intelligence by determining how well nerve axons are encased in myelin — the fatty sheath of “insulation” that coats our axons and allows for fast signaling bursts in our brains. The thicker the myelin, the faster the nerve impulses.

Thompson and his colleagues scanned the brains of 23 sets of identical twins and 23 sets of fraternal twins. Since identical twins share the same genes while fraternal twins share about half their genes, the researchers were able to compare each group to show that myelin integrity was determined genetically in many parts of the brain that are key for intelligence. These include the parietal lobes, which are responsible for spatial reasoning, visual processing and logic, and the corpus callosum, which pulls together information from both sides of the body.

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Stem-Cell Repair Kit for Stroke

A novel matrix of neural stem cells and a biodegradable polymer can quickly repair brain damage from stroke in rats. Within just seven days of injecting the concoction directly into the damaged part of the brain, new nerve tissue grew to fill stroke-induced cavities.

Scientists say that the key to the advance, published today in the journal Biomaterials, is the use of a biodegradable polymer called PLGA, which ensures that the stem cells remain in the area of stroke damage and establish connections with surrounding brain tissue. By reducing the number of stray stem cells, the system is likely to be safer as well as more effective than other methods, the researchers add.

Strokes, which occur due to bleeds or blocked blood vessels in the brain, cause some brain tissue to die. This dead tissue is then removed by the immune system, leaving a hole. “We would expect to see a much better improvement in the outcome after a stroke if we can fully replace the lost brain tissue, and that is what we have been able to do with our technique,” says Mike Modo, a neurobiologist at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London, who oversaw the research.

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On the Quest for Synthetic Life, Scientists Build Their Own Cellular Protein Factory

In an important step towards creating synthetic life forms, genetics pioneer George Church has produced a man-made version of the part of the cell that turns out proteins, which carry out the business of life. “If you going to make synthetic life that is anything like current life … you have got to have this … biological machine,” Church told reporters in a telephone briefing. And it can have important industrial uses, especially for manufacturing drugs and proteins not found in nature [Reuters].

Church’s team built a functional ribosome from scratch, molecule by molecule. Ribosomes are molecular machines that read strands of RNA and translate the genetic code into proteins. They are exquisitely complex, and previous attempts to reconstitute a ribosome from its constituent parts – dozens of proteins along with several molecules of RNA – yielded poorly functional ribosomes, and even then succeeded only when researchers resorted to “strange conditions” that did not recapitulate the environment of a living cell, Church said [Nature blog]. Next, the researchers want to produce man-made ribosomes that can replicate themselves.

Church’s work hasn’t yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal; instead he presented his preliminary results at a seminar of Harvard alumni over the weekend. He described how his research team first disassembled ribosomes from E. coli, a common lab bacterium, into its component molecules. They then used enzymes to put the various RNA and protein components back together. When put together in a test tube, these components spontaneously formed into functional ribosomes…. The researchers used the artificial ribosome to successfully produce the luciferase enzyme, a firefly protein that generates the bug’s glow [Technology Review].

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Scientists create ‘portable lung’

Researchers say their device, which oxygenates blood outside the body before it goes through the lungs, could be an alternative to transplants.

The Swansea University scientists say it could take many years before the device, the size of a spectacles case, is available.

Lung patients, who have seen how it would work, have welcomed the research.

According to the British Lung Foundation, there are more than 40 conditions which affect the lungs and airways and impact on a person’s ability to breathe.

They include lung cancer, tuberculosis, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cystic fibrosis, sleep apnoea, avian flu, bronchiolitis and many others.

Its research suggests that one person in every seven in the UK is affected by lung disease – this equates to approximately 8m people.

As of 6 March 2009, 217 people were on the waiting list for a lung transplant according to figures by NHS Blood and Transplant.

Now scientists in Swansea are developing a portable artificial lung which could transform the lives of patients.

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Harvard Scientists’ Discovery Opens Door to Synthetic Life

Harvard University scientists are a step closer to creating synthetic forms of life, part of a drive to design man-made organisms that may one day be used to help produce new fuels and create biotechnology drugs.

Researchers led by George Church, whose findings helped spur the U.S. human genome project in the 1980s, have copied the part of a living cell that makes proteins, the building blocks of life. The finding overcomes a major roadblock in making synthetic self-replicating organisms, Church said today in a lecture at Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The technology can be used to program cells to make virtually any protein, even some that don’t exist in nature, the scientists said. That may allow production of helpful new drugs, chemicals and organisms, including living bacteria. It also opens the door to ethical concerns about creation of processes that may be uncontrollable by life’s natural defenses.

“It’s the key component to making synthetic life,” Church said yesterday in a telephone call with reporters. “We haven’t made synthetic life and it’s not our primary goal, but this is a huge milestone in that direction.”

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Scientists remove cancer genes from stem cells

Scientists have taken another important step toward using ordinary skin cells that are made to behave like embryonic stem cells to find treatments for conditions like Parkinson’s disease.

Researchers at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Massachusetts removed a stumbling block in using so-called induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells, by taking out potentially cancer-causing genes.

Writing in the journal Cell on Thursday, the scientists said they then turned these iPS cells into brain cells involved in Parkinson’s disease.

The iPS stem cells could be made from a patient’s own skin cells, reducing the chances that the body’s immune system might reject the cells as it sometimes does with organ transplants.

Transplanting healthy cells made from iPS cells to replace cells damaged by disease or injury may be possible in the future. But a more immediate use for these cells may be in lab dishes testing the effects of new drugs, according to Dirk Hockemeyer, one of the Whitehead Institute researchers.

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Cal Closer to Building “Organs from Scratch”

Synthetic biologists are getting closer to creating man-made organs made out of genetically engineered cells.

Two Cal chemists announced Tuesday they have assembled different types of genetically engineered cells into synthetic microtissues that can perform functions such as secreting and responding to hormones.

They said that means more complex biological capabilities, like the kinds done by a liver or a heart or a kidney, are not out of the question at some point soon.

“While the synthetic tissues today comprise only a handful of cells, they could eventually be scaled up to make artificial organs,” the university media office said in a statement. “Those could help scientists understand the interactions among cells in the body and might some day substitute for human organs.”

“People used to think of the cell as the fundamental unit. But the truth is that there are collections of cells that can do things that no individual cell could ever be programmed to do. We are trying to achieve the properties of organs now, though not yet organisms,” “This is like another level of hierarchical complexity for synthetic biology,” said coauthor Carolyn Bertozzi, UC Berkeley professor of chemistry and of molecular and cell biology. She is also the director of the Molecular Foundry at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

“As synthetic biologists cram more and more genes into microbes to make genetically engineered organisms produce ever more complex drugs and chemicals, two University of California chemists have gone a step further,” the university media office said.

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Two year old girl can see for the first time following stem cell treatment

Two-year-old British girl Dakota Clarke can see for the first time after undergoing pioneering stem cell treatment in China.

Dakota, who was born blind, is the first British patient to undergo the new type of therapy.

The £30,000 treatment, which involves stems cells taken from an umbilical cord being fed into her forehead, has allowed her to see people, objects, colours and lights around her.

Dakota suffers from Septo-Optic Dysplasia, which means the optic nerve does not develop properly, and has responded quicker than expected to the treatment. Her parents, Wilma, 28, and dad Darren, 34, are hoping she will continue to improve and have a life time of sight.

Speaking from the Qingdao People’s Hospital in southern China, Mrs Clarke, from Newtownabbey. near Belfast, said: “We didn’t know if the treatment would work, and people kept telling us it was too experimental, but we had to do this.

“It’s been worth every single penny to see the changes in her.”

Mr Clarke added: “It’s nothing short of a miracle for us. She can see the world for the first time.

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Scientists’ stem cell breakthrough ends ethical dilemma

Scientists have found a way to make an almost limitless supply of stem cells that could safely be used in patients while avoiding the ethical dilemma of destroying embryos.

In a breakthrough that could have huge implications, British and Canadian scientists have found a way of reprogramming skin cells taken from adults, effectively winding the clock back on the cells until they were in an embryonic form.

The work has been hailed as a major step forward by scientists and welcomed by pro-life organisations, who called on researchers to halt other experiments which use stem cells collected from embryos made at IVF clinics.

Sir Ian Wilmut, who led the team that cloned Dolly the Sheep and heads the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine at Edinburgh University where the work was done, said: “This is a significant step in the right direction. The team has made great progress and combining this work with that of other scientists working on stem cell differentiation, there is hope that the promise of regenerative medicine could soon be met.”

Stem cells have the potential to be turned into any tissue in the body, an ability that has led researchers to believe they could be used to make “spare parts” to replace diseased and damaged organs and treat conditions as diverse as Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and spinal cord injury.

Because the cells can be made from a patient’s own skin, they carry the same DNA and so could be used without a risk of being rejected by the immune system.

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Synthetic life form grows in Florida lab

When NASA began thinking about missions to look for life beyond Earth, it realized it had a problem: how to recognize life if it were found.

Scientists came up with a definition for life — a self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution — but remained understandably fuzzy on the details.

It is still not known how life on Earth took hold, what happened to a bunch of chemicals that made them capable of supporting a metabolism, replicating and evolution. But a new field of science, called synthetic biology, is aiming to find out.

One of the most promising developments lies in a beaker of water inside a Florida laboratory. It’s an experiment called AEGIS — an acronym for Artificially Expanded Genetic Information System. Its creator, Steve Benner, says it is the first synthetic genetic system capable of Darwinian evolution.

AEGIS is not self-sustaining, at least not yet, and with 12 DNA building blocks — as opposed to the usual four — there’s little chance it will be confused with natural life. Still, Benner is encouraged by the results.

“It’s evolving. It’s doing what we designed it to do,” said Benner, a biochemist with the Gainesville, Fla.-based Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution.

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