Tag: Catherine de Lange

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.


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.