Food for Thought: Weekly Wrap-Up

There is hope for hepatitis C patients, writes Nicola von Lutterotti in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ). She reports on four studies looking into the efficacy of Boceprevir (by Merck & Co). and Telaprevir (by Vertex Pharmaceuticals), which received approval recently in the US. Both drugs inhibit the NS3 serine protease, an enzyme necessary for the multiplication of the virus. When used in addition to standard therapy the new medications improved response from 40% to 70% in previously untreated patients an from 25% to 88% in relapsing patients. Moreover, 33% of patients not or only poorly responding to standard treatment responded to the new combination.

Thomas Jüngling in Die Welt reports on “sollectors”, a revolutionary lighting system developed by Siemens subsidiary Osram. The devices affixed at the outside of buildings bundle sunlight by a lens system and route it through fiber optic polymers directly into the interior of the building. If sunlight is not sufficient, the system adds light from LEDs which can be modulated to provide a greater portion of red in the morning and evening and more blue during the day. Jüngling also introduces other systems to direct sunlight into buildings developed by Interferenz Daylight from Bingen, Germany, and Swiss Heliobus.

Die Welt also reports on the identification of one of the key genes involved in anxiety. The gene spotted by a team of scientists from the German universities of Münster (Universitätsklinikum UKM), Hamburg and Würzburg encodes for the neuropeptide S receptor. If the gene is switched off, mice become very anxious. If the scientists administered neuropeptide S, the animals lost anxiety. The researchers are now looking for mutations of the gene in families with members treated for phobias, panic attacks and other anxiety disorders.

Daniel Lingenhöhl in Handelsblatt reports on the discovery of a microbe expressing a cellulase enzyme able to catalyze breakdown of cellulose even at 109°C. The enzyme variant codenamed EBI-244 may be useful for the industrial-scale production of biofuel.

Michael Odenwald in Focus reports on biofuel produced from algae in a pilot plant of Bio Fuel Systems in Spain. The company is cultivating sea algae, which are fed with CO2 from flue gas of a cement plant and produce oil (“blue petroleum”). According to the article, the daily average output is 5 barrels of 159 liters each per hectare which amounts to more than 290,000 liter of algal oil per hectare and year. The output can be used to produce benzine, diesel, kerosine, and plastics.

Is the global clean energy industry set for a major crash? Devon Swezey in Forbes thinks it is – for a simple reason: clean energy, he writes, is still much more expensive and much less reliable than fossil, and subsidies to make clean energy artificially cheaper will have to be cut down dramatically by the governments because of budget problems.

The Economist introduces zoobotics, a new field creating animal-like robots that climb, crawl, swim and even fly like their natural counterparts. The field is getting more and more sophisticated,  thanks to recent advantages in electronics, miniaturization, new materials and zoology. It is hoped that these artificial animals will be able to perform tasks in dangerous environments.

In Wired, Maryn McKenna gives a stunning account of Germany’s EHEC epidemic that now has been traced back to originate from a single shipment of fenugreek seeds that left the Egyptian port of Damietta on November 24, 2009. As this shipment was 15,000 kg and has been broken up to distributers across Europe, which in turn also split it into multiple lots, McKenna forecasts that the the epidemic will be far from over – even if it turns out that the Egyptian source of the outbreak had a one-time, and not an ongoing contamination problem.

Andy Coghlan in New Scientist this week features a breakthrough achieved at Sweden’s Karolinska University Hospital where surgeons successfully transplanted the world’s first synthetic windpipe into a cancer patient whose own windpipe had to be removed. The transplant is made from novel polymeric nanocomposite material developed at the University College London which has millions of tiny holes so that living cells can grow in it. The windpipe was coated prior to the operation with mesenchymal stem cells derived from the patient’s bone marrow. The operation may mark the beginning of a new era of “off-the-shelf” organs for transplantation, Coghlan writes.

And finally, Der Spiegel reports on recent findings that the taste of fatty food triggers the production of endocannabinoids in the gut. As a result, it triggers ravenous appetite for this food. The reason: fat is a rare, but necessary food source in nature, so consuming fat has been decisive for survival. Scientist now hope to discover a way of blocking the specific endocannabinoid receptors in the gut as a means to block adephagia.