Stories tagged Bioengineering


This Wednesday evening kicks off a super-exciting four-part NOVA series about nanotechnology called Making Stuff. Each episode focuses on one general concept: stronger, smaller, cleaner, smarter. We could just squeal.

Spider Web +
Spider Web +Courtesy National Science Foundation

I was honored to get a sneak-preview of the first episode, Making Stuff: Stronger in San Francisco in October, and found myself in some crazy conversations afterward about bioengineering and media ethics. You see, scientists have, uh, installed spider silk-making genes into goats, thereby making the goat milk spinnable into spider silk. The Making Stuff episode covers this, then ends by showing the host happily drinking a glass of milk, and we’re left wondering if it's actually the spider-silk-milk that he’s downing without a care in the world.

Baby Goat =
Baby Goat =Courtesy National Science Foundation

2020 Science, the blog of Andrew Maynard, scientist, science policy guru, and Director of the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, kindly takes the conversation beyond “ew!” to “responsible?” Andrew was also in the room for the special preview, and raised far more eloquent concerns than I (I’m sorry – I’m still stuck on the spiders…ew), and then blogged about them. And then got substantive responses, including one from Making Stuff’s producer, Chris Schmidt. All a fascinating read.

Andrew, being the smart, informed fellow that he is, pointed out that this whole spidergoat concept is old news. Bioengineered Spider Silk
Bioengineered Spider SilkCourtesy National Science Foundation
No less icky and/or creepy I would add, but still old news. Can’t wait until the Making Stuff episode that delves into the topic on Wednesday? Take a peek at the short video put together by the National Science Foundation.

Researchers have developed several ways to potentially mass-produce silk without moths or spiders. The silk can be a hard solid, gel, liquid, sponge, or fiber, is stronger than kevlar, non-toxic, and biodegradable. It's perfectly clear and can be used to create plastics, optical sensors, medicine delivery capsules implanted inside the body--the applications are pretty huge and pretty green.

There's already a silk tissue scaffold on the market that can be used to regenerate ligaments or other damaged tissue--the scaffold is implanted into the body in place of damaged tissue, and as new tissue grows around it, the silk slowly breaks down into amino acids and is reused by the body. How cool is that?!


Human medicine extracted from rabbit milk

Drugs from rabbit milk
Drugs from rabbit milkCourtesy Hardyplants
Almost three years ago, I wrote about how farm animals were being modified genetically to produce milk and eggs containing pharmaceuticals.

Pharming rabbits

A Dutch biotech firm, appropriately named Pharming, has been milking rabbits experimentally for years. They recently developed a drug called Rhucin, which they extract from rabbit milk. The rabbits have been outfitted with a human gene that produces a protein called C1 inhibitor in their milk. Rhucin can be used to treat people with hereditary angioedema.

"Human C1 inhibitor can be obtained from donor blood, but our … product can be produced in unlimited quantities from a scalable and stable production system, and there are no safety issues in terms of [blood] viruses National Geographic."

If the drug is approved, Pharming will start milking a herd of about a thousand rabbits. The method is similar to milking cows except that the milk sucking attachments are smaller.

Miniature mouse milking machine

Mice are being milked in Russia for lactoferrin which normally is found in the breast milk of humans. Lactoferrin protects babies from viruses and bacteria while the infants' immune systems are still developing. Milking mice is very difficult, and is only a step toward larger animals such as rabbits, goats, or cows being bioengineered.

The ultimate aim of the Russian team, and of similar research projects in other countries, is to extract lactoferrin from the milk and use the protein to create healthier baby formula. National Geographic


Super Corn!: Resistant to bugs AND delicious!
Super Corn!: Resistant to bugs AND delicious!Courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture

While every other industry in the world seems to be tanking and going to visit their loyal bankruptcy lawyer, science and the genome project is on top!

The cost of sequencing has drastically decreased over the past few years and now smaller institutes can afford to contribute to the genome project. The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council has recently opened a new research center in Norwich, England to aid farmers in the face of climate change.

Their main overarching goal is to help boost food production for future generations. They take seriously the threats of climate change on the global food sources. As such the institute is hoping to develop crops that are more resistant to harmful insects and can withstand severe drought. Outside of issues surrounding climate change there is great interest on the board to develop new strains of vegetables that will contain compounds that reduce the incidence of some cancers.

With more institutes like the one in Norwich and affordable genome sequencing we may well survive the terrors of climate change!


Amazing nano factories known as proteins

Protein structure: three representations of the protein triose phosphate isomerase.
Protein structure: three representations of the protein triose phosphate isomerase.Courtesy Opabinia regalis
Understanding proteins and how they work is very useful. One type of protein called an enzyme is like a nano sized factory that can take apart molecules or build new molecules out of smaller parts.

Plant cellulose can be turned into ethanol fuel. Oil slicks could be digested into non-pollutants. Custom designed proteins will soon allow "living" factories that can manufacture almost anything we can imagine. Protein "hackers" are creating synthetic antibodies — proteins designed to bind tightly to specific targets, such as tumor cells, which can then be destroyed.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency

To accomplish this goal, DARPA is investing in the development of new tools in diverse areas such as topology, optimization, the calculation of ab initio potentials, synthetic chemistry, and informatics leading to the ability to design proteins to order. At the conclusion of this program, researchers expect to be able to design a new complex protein, within 24 hours, that will inactivate a pathogenic organism. Protein Design Processes (DARPA)

The Protein Data Bank and [email protected]

Proteins are made from a complex chain of amino acids. Several resources are helping to illuminate the complex relationship between the sequence of a chain of amino acids, the shape into which that chain will ultimately fold, and the function executed by the resulting protein.

The Protein Data Bank is an ever growing data bank of detailed schematic protein information. Another program that is helping to understand how proteins are shaped is the [email protected] project which allows thousands of home computers to determine the 3-dimensional shapes of proteins being designed by researchers.

Try protein folding

"Would you like to play a new computer game and help scientists analyze protein chemistry -- at the same time? Here is a fun and interesting computer puzzle game that is designed to fold proteins -- the objective is to correctly fold a protein into the smallest possible space." Grrlscientist

Watch this video to learn how to "fold-it"


While electronic devices double their capacity every 18 months or so, battery capacity per volume are lucky to double every ten years. A new breakthrough by materials scientists at MIT promises to drastically decrease the size of batteries. In a battery, only the surfaces of the electrodes create electricity. The key to making lighter batteries is to make lots of surfaces but minimize the material under the surface - in other words make the electrodes as thin as possible.

Living viruses manufacture paper thin batteries

MIT scientists, professors Angela Belcher, Paula Hammond and Yet-Ming Chiang have used genetically engineered living viruses to assemble thin-film nanowires as the anodes and cathodes of a flexible "battery wrap" only 100 nanometers thick. The virus is a derivative the M13 bacteriophage. It is 6 x 880 nanometers in size.

Three dips will do it

The genetically engineered battery wrap is fabricated by dipping a scaffold into three beakers. The first dip picks up a layer of polyelectrolyte which can be as thin as 100 nanometers. The second dip is into a soup of the 6 x 880 nm viruses. The viruses, which are negatively charged, stick to to the positively charged scaffold kind of like the bristles on a hair brush. These viruses, when dipped into third solution, are genetically engineered to pull cobalt-oxide and gold ions onto their surfaces.

After that, the polyelectrolyte is dried out, and the 6-nm-diameter viruses dehydrate, becoming harmlessly entombed inside a sealed compartment of inorganic cobalt and gold.
"Potentially, when we grow a lithium layer on the other side of the polyelectrolyte for the other cathode, we could use this material to make batteries as thin as 100 nm,"

Paper thin batteries eliminate need for battery compartment

Thousands of these battery layers could be stacked on top of each other and still be paper thin. Such a battery could store two or three times more energy for its size and weight than conventional batteries today. Its "wrapability" would also allow the batteries to be placed around objects rather than requiring storage compartments.

Source:Living viruses create flexible battery film EE Times


Biomedical engineers at Vanderbilt University have demonstrated that they can grow healthy new bone in one part of the body and use it to repair damaged bone at a different location.

Orthopedic surgeons currently treat serious bone breaks by removing small pieces of bone from a patient's rib or hip and fusing them to the broken area. Although this procedure works well in the long run, bone removal is extremely painful and subject to complications. If the new bone repair method is approved in clinical studies, bioengineers will be able to grow bone for all kinds of repairs. For patients with serious diseases, they might even be able to grow replacement bone at an early stage and freeze it for later use.

Bioengineers conducted their bone growth research on mature rabbits, animals with bones very similar to humans. They created zones on the rabbit bone called "in vivo bioreactors," which filled with healthy bone six weeks later. Here's how it works: an outer layer called the periosteum covers long bones in our body. This layer is a bit like scotch tape, with a tough outer layer but cells underneath that can transform into different types of skeletal tissue. Researchers created the "in vivo" zones in rabbit bone by making tiny holes in the periosteum and filling them with saline water. Then they added a gel containing calcium, a trigger for bone growth. Within six weeks, the zones filled with new bones indistinguishable from the original.

"We have shown that we can grow predictable volumes of bone on demand," said V. Prasad Shastri, a biomedical engineer at Vanderbilt University who led the study. "And we did so by persuading the body to do what it already knows how to do."

The next step? Large animal studies and trials to determine if the procedure will work in humans.