Food for Thought: Weekly Wrap-Up

The EHEC epidemic in Germany with 4,300 patients and 50 deaths has changed the way public health institutions will deal with future epidemics, writes Christina Hucklenbroich in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ). She cites microbiologists involved in the rapid sequencing of the EHEC strain who think that the epidemic gave birth to the new discipline of “prospective genomic epidemiology”. To date, sequencing has been performed retrospectively only. However, using the novel Ion Torrent PGM HGS platform, scientists from the University of Münster were able to sequence the EHEC strain responsible for the outbreak within 62 hours. The scientists now think of a software generating a plain language report interpreting the genome and analyzing for toxins and antibiotics resistances of the germ in question so that immediate therapeutic and prophylactic consequences are possible.

Gas, electricity and hydrogen from algae are in the focus of a story by Susanne Kutter in Wirtschaftswoche. She features Sven Kerzenmacher and Johannes Gescher from the University of Freiburg and their efforts to produce electrical current directly from bacteria. The technology is based on the Shewanella bacterium which can transfer electrons generated by breakdown of sugar or other nutrients from the cell surface to conductive materials. Shewanella lives in fresh-, brack- and seawater and thrives on organic waste. The researchers are now trying to design a Shewanella-based mini-powerplant the size of a refrigerator which is able to produce 5-10 Watts of electricity per day – sufficient to meet the demand of a four-person household. Among others, Kutter also features a dual-chamber solar module developed by researchers from Leipzig, Karlsruhe and Bremen. In the first chamber, algae are forced by an excess of oxygen to produce hydrocarbons (“photorespiration”). The hydrocarbons enter the second chamber via a membrane and are used by bacteria to produce methane under anaerobic conditions. Readers interested in learning more about Shewanella may find regular updates on Shewanella Blogger.

While algae seem to be an ideal biofuel replacement for gasoline in the first place, it has turned out that the economics is a problem, writes Erica Gies in Forbes. Gies revisits former biofuel-from-algae startups that are now turning to more profitable products, using “green” chemistry to replace petrochemicals or unsustainable bio-based oils.

Also in Forbes, Matthew Herper deals with an op-ed in Nature Reviews Drug Discovery by John L. LaMattina, ex-CEO of Pfizer, Inc. LaMattina writes the pharma’s M&A activities have had a “devastating” effect of research and development efforts which will impact the industry over the next decade. The comment is all the more telling as LaMattina was pivotal in Pfizer’s acquisitions of Warner-Lambert, Pharmacia, Wyeth and many other companies. LaMattina summarizes that the consolidation by M&A led to fewer companies pursuing novel ideas and disruptions in research processes. Friction is caused, among others, by the need to streamline computer systems, procedures to track side-effects and others. Usually, a merger delays the start of any new research project by nine months. LaMattina’s comment can be accessed here.

Brandon Keim in Wired explains that most genetic differences in people are not caused by mutations but by variations in the genome’s architecture. At present, sequencing is designed to identify SNPs and as every sequencing method is breaking down the DNA in smaller pieces most genomic studies a blind to larger variations. First sequencing studies looking at larger DNA pieces now revealed that individuals seem to be distinguished less by their SNPs than by their structural variations, i.e. wholesale duplications and reversals, or unexpected additions and omissions of long DNA sequences.

Finally, Catherine de Lange in the New Scientist features the first car plugging into the driver’s brain to cut response times in case the car needs to stop suddenly. The invention of Stefan Haufe from the Berlin Institute of Technology uses an EEG headset and sensors on the leg to detect neuronal patterns and muscle tension to find out that the driver intends to apply the brakes. The system improves response times by 130 milliseconds which translates into the length of a small car when stopping from a speed of 100 km/h.