Food for Thought: Weekly Wrap-Up

Solar cells can become cheap bulk ware, even for developing countries, writes Manfred Lindinger in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ). He introduces a technology for printing a sheet of zinc oxide, a polymer containing fullerenes and an electrode made from polymers on paper. The technology developed at Technical University Chemnitz can use ordinary printing machines and paper, and the resulting solar paper can be bended and folded. However, the efficiency is still very poor (1.3% at 5 V compared to 10 or more with conventional ones). Life span will amount to a few months. For other approaches to make cheaper solar cells, see this post.

Martina Lenzen-Schulte, also in FAZ, explains how measle viruses leave cells to enter the airway. Today it is known that they do not proliferate in the outer epithelium cells but in lymph nodes. The way back is facilitated by the membrane protein nectin-4, which acts as a transporter carrying the virus through epithelial cells. Lenzen-Schulte also reports that the effect may explain why cancer cells, which often overexpress nectin-4, are vulnerable to measle and other viruses. This might pave a way to develop new oncolytic viruses.

Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, the nestor of the German biotechnology industry, makes the case for green biotechnology in the weekly Die Zeit. Winnacker criticizes the concept of coexistence that tries to avoid a blending of genetically modified and conventionally bred plants by defining a minimum distance between cultivated areas. In Germany, a farmer cultivating GMOs is liable for every case of cross-breeding, a provision that effectively prohibits GMO cultivation as there is a zero threshold for “contamination”. Winnacker also criticizes the strategy of patenting genetically modified plants instead of protecting them with the traditional plant variety rights that allow for exemptions for the further use of GMOs by breeders and farmers. Green biotechnology, he writes, has – at least in Europe – become the scapegoat for everything that is wrong with modern agriculture, from monoculture to declining biodiversity to the death of bees, although Europe is almost free from GM plants. As 25 years of research into the risk of green biotechnology have not been able to reveal any real danger, Winnacker proposes to amend the German law on genetic engineering and to simply omit the measures restricting the cultivation of GMOs.

Diabetics may soon be able to measure blood sugar without pricking, reports Der Spiegel. A new technology developed by researchers of John’s Hopkins University enables measuring of blood sugar in tear fluid.

In Wirtschaftswoche, Matthias Hohensee introduces US-based 23andme company which offers genetic testing at a rate of $99 plus a flat fee of $9 per month for access to the data. The company, which was criticized for exaggerating the benefits of personal genetic testing, also changed its business model and is now offering its records comprising the data of 125,000 people for research purposes, e.g. to find out why certain hereditary diseases display incomplete penetrance in different carriers of the respective genes.

Theres Lüthi in Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) reports on clinical studies by Roche and Novartis in people suffering from Down’s or fragile X syndrome in an attempt to improve cognitive abilities.

Alyson Krueger in Forbes reports on a talk on synthetic biology given by Andrew Hessel of Singularity University during the Technonomy 2011 conference. Hessel describes synthetic biology as computer-assisted genetic design that goes from an idea to printing DNA to ultimately booting DNA and forecasts it will render the task of engineering life as straightforward as programming software, or creating a vaccine as simple as Tweeting.

Alex Knapp, also in Forbes, describes a “cyborg yeast” designed by researchers from the University of California at San Francisco and ETH Zurich, Switzerland. In the yeast, the expression of a certain gene can be switched on and off by different shades of red light. The technique may lead to advances in the production of proteins by yeast cultures.

The Economist reports on the first computational pathologist which can can distinguish between grades of breast-cancer cells to provide a more accurate prognosis than a human pathologist can manage.

And finally, scientists found a single gene which can make you appear kinder, reports Catherine de Lange in New Scientist. In experiments conducted at the University of Toronto, people with the so-called GG version of the oxytocin receptor gene were judged to be kinder than those with GA or AA versions. Those with GG variations used significantly more non-verbal empathetic gestures in their storytelling such as smiling and nodding which made them appear kinder.