Stories tagged Life Science

Dec
01
2009

Vat grown meat?: In five years, it could be yours.
Vat grown meat?: In five years, it could be yours.Courtesy Jorren
These are confusing times we live in. Are vampires legitimate objects of sexual desire, or is wanting to make out with a 100-year-old man still weird? What are dolphins thinking about? And what will you be eating in ten years?

It’s overwhelming, isn’t it? But Science Buzz is here to help. Here are the answers to the preceding pressing questions, in order: Yes, because when have millions of teenagers ever been wrong?; depends on the 100-year-old man, and if he’s interested too; sex, hunting, and horrible combinations of the two; and lab-grown meat.

We’ve talked about “artificial” meat here on the Buzz before, because it’s so weird, sciencey and awesome, but that was four years ago, and some wild things have developed since then.

Just in time for Thanksgiving, scientists in the Netherlands have created artificial muscles… for eating! The articles I found about the announcement were, unfortunately, pretty vague, and I’m not sure exactly what this muscle mass is like. It’s not a huge challenge to get a bunch of muscle cells to reproduce outside of a living animal, but getting them grow into a real muscle (and recognizable meat, instead of a formless mass of cells) is more difficult. It’s a similar problem to growing new organs for transplant, and similar methods have been tested; researchers are experimenting with using a collagen “skeleton” of a muscle for muscle cells to grow on. I think that the researchers in the Nethelands may have done something like this, because they’ve grown pig cells into what they’re referring to as “soggy pork,” a substance like “wasted muscle.” Just getting the structure right, it seems, is not quite enough for having lab-grown meat (or “in vitro meat”) that tastes and feels like the real thing. The scientists still need to figure out a way to “exercise” the bodiless muscle, but they think that they’re close enough to a solution that they claim the artificial meat could be on sale within five years. But, then again, that’s what this guy said five years ago, and in the 1930s, Winston Churchill said we’d be growing meat outside of animals within 50 years, so what do they know? Maybe they’re onto something this time, though—a sausage company is backing the research, and it’s thought that the first real fake muscles will be pretty small, and best used in ground meat applications. Like sausages.

It’s an interesting idea, in vitro meat. Unlike cloned meat, which still comes from a living, cloned animal, in vitro meat would never come from a whole animal, so there would be no animal cruelty. The original cells could be taken via biopsy, too, leaving the animal unharmed. It’s also hoped that meat-growing processes could eventually be better for the environment, because they wouldn’t require land to live on, or for growing feed crops, or as much fuel to move around, and they wouldn’t constantly be farting and producing methane (A very potent greenhouse gas). And while scientists in laboratories are doing these early experiments, commercial scale operations would be more like yeast- or yogurt-producing facilities. Even PETA, ever looking for trouble in the oddest places seems to be ok with the idea of in vitro meat, because it doesn’t require animals to be hurt or killed.

But would you eat it? Are you more or less comfortable with meat that was grown in a vat than with meat grown in an animal’s body?

Nov
29
2009

Synthetic biology pioneer, Andrew Hessel, explains how building blocks of DNA snippets will be assembled into customized living organisms

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Medicine without patents

Andrew Hessel hopes that an open source approach in pharmacology will produce safe, effective, and individually personalized medicines quickly and inexpensively. Hessel likens the exponential advances in synthetic biology to the boom in the electronics industry.

Test tube sized factories

One big difference, though, is that biological manufacuring does not require expensive refining, huge factories, or expensive tools. Biological organisms are alive and can self assemble complex structures from basic ingredients.

Foundational work, including the standardization of DNA-encoded parts and devices, enables them to be combined to create programs to control cells.

  • Cells are being engineered to consume agricultural products and produce liquid fuels.
  • Bacteria and yeast can be re-engineered for the low cost production of drugs. (Artemisinin, Lipitor)
  • Bacteria and T-cells can be rewired to circulate in the body and identify and treat diseased cells and tissues. BioBricks.org

DIY BIO 4 Beginners

Eric Fernandez has a blog for do-it-yourself types like 23-year-old Kay Aull who set up a do it yourself DNA lab for genotyping her GFE gene in her closet! Be sure to check the archives for more than a hundred informative DIY Bio posts like this one by Make's, Mac Cowell.

Gene hacking and biofabs

Costs are coming down fast and genetic synthesis or gene fabrication is a cottage industry. Biofabs like GeneArt, Blue Heron, DNA2.0, and Codon Devices can deliver a synthesized product from an e-mailed description almost over night. Synthetic biologists envision writing the DNA code for such products the way computer programmers write software.

Catolog for genetic parts

Genetic programming now has several well developed languages allowing large data bases of biological modules.

The Registry of Standard Biological Parts is a continuously growing collection of genetic parts that can be mixed and matched to build synthetic biology devices and systems. Founded in 2003 at MIT, the Registry is part of the Synthetic Biology community's efforts to make biology easier to engineer. It provides a resource of available genetic parts to iGEM teams and academic labs.

iGEM synthetic biology contest for students

The International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM) is the premiere undergraduate Synthetic Biology competition. Teams participating and over 1200 participants will all specify, design, build, and test simple biological systems made from standard, interchangeable biological parts. If you go to this iGEM results page you will find video links for the winning presentations. You can read team abstracts of the iGEM projects here.

Nov
25
2009

Almost every day for the past 4 weeks or so, I am asking myself, “What is the future of H1N1 going to be like?” Mostly everyone that I know may seem to be somewhat concerned. But most people don’t panic about this kind of situation. In fact, I have observed that certain people are outraged when it is suggested that this virus should be taken seriously. In recent weeks, an U.S outbreak of the H1N1 flu has occurred; it is caused by a new strain of influenza virus that contains a combination of swine, avian, and human influenza virus genes.
The H1N1 has spread in 43 states and some researchers say that the H1N1 can spread as much as the regular seasonal flu. Nationally, visits to doctors for influenza-like-illness declined from last week, but it’s still higher than expected for this time of year. Flu-related hospitalizations and deaths have declined slightly, but are still very high nation-wide compared to what is expected for this time of year. If the H1N1 virus has become a pandemic as many scientists expected it would. It will kill millions of people, but it will also have an enormous economic impact and potentially cause social and political changes that are impossible to guess.
Last week when I was reading from an article my teacher gave me, it said that the World Health Organization (WHO) raised the influenza pandemic alert to phase six (wide spread human infection), indicating the world is now at the beginning of the 2009 influenza pandemic. Although the WHO considers the overall severity of the pandemic to be moderate, the organization is concerned about the pattern of serious cases and deaths, particularly among young, healthy adults. Additionally health experts are closely watching the southern hemisphere to see how the strain affects the traditional flu season. Many scientists suggested that the combination of the seasonal flu and the H1N1 virus could create a more severe combination of the flu. Meaning the H1N1 may be getting worst and that this may not be the end of the H1N1 virus.
I would hope that the Center for Disease Control and WHO are equally engaged with countries across the globe to accomplish the same thing, to help cure the H1N1 quickly and safely, because for whatever the future of H1N1 virus has in store, one thing is certain: We will be judged not just by how well we were prepared but also by what we did to prepare the H1N1.
Website to find more information: http://www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/whatsnew.htm

Nov
20
2009

Of course, some dinosaurs may not be missing--just hiding.: Many species adopt camouflage to blend in to their environments.
Of course, some dinosaurs may not be missing--just hiding.: Many species adopt camouflage to blend in to their environments.Courtesy Elston

Looooooong time passing....

Seems like some of them were never here to begin with. Over the years, scientists have named about 700 different species of dinosaurs. But a recent study indicates that perhaps as many as a third of these were phantoms—specimens that were given distinct names despite actually belonging to another, well-known species.

For example, Torosaurus is now thought to be just a fully mature version of Triceratops. At the other end of the age scale, Nanotyrannus is considered by some to be just a juvenile form of the famous Tyrannosaurus rex.

Why the changes? Well, identifying species is hard, even under the best of circumstances. With fossils, it’s especially tricky. You often only have one specimen to study, not dozens or hundreds as with living creatures. You can only see the fossil’s bones, not the full creature. And, most important, you only have the dead body—you can’t watch the living creature to see how it changes as it grows. (Dinosaur bones, it seems, are extremely malleable and prone to change shape as the creature matures.)

But don’t be too hard on the poor paleontologists. Other scientists have this same problem. Last year, it was reported that over 30% of all living marine creatures had been misidentified, and for the same reasons. An individual (or small group) was slightly larger than normal, or slightly smaller, or a slightly different color, or came from a different location—enough to lead the scientist to classify it as a new species, when in fact it was already a member of an established species. If taxonomists can make that many mistakes with living creatures, we shouldn’t be surprised that the dinosaur family tree will need a little pruning.

Nov
20
2009

Meditation
MeditationCourtesy h.koppdelany
Do you ever just need a break? How many times have you been told to just take a deep breath? Turns out that may not be such a bad idea, especially if you have coronary artery disease. Recent research by Midwest physicians took a look at the effect of regular meditation on the health of patients surviving with narrowed coronary arteries. They studied more than 200 of these high risk patients for over five years. The test half of the group received instruction and practiced daily transcendental meditation for up to 20 minutes. The meditating patients experienced close to a half as many major issues to their health such as heart attacks, strokes, and death. Death is one of those things most of us try to avoid. Scads amount of research has delved into the possible effects of a wide range of meditative practices on such things as creativity, focus, mental well-being, and even job performance. It would seem a natural thing to embrace. I can certainly think of a few Type-A personalities that could stand to hum a few bars of “ooommmmmm” during their morning commute. Take a moment and enjoy your day!

Story at ScienceMag.org

Nov
10
2009

Curious langur
Curious langurCourtesy John Downer
Have you ever wondered why people honk at you .02 seconds after the light turns green? Or why some people take Connect Four a little too seriously? Well, it may be the length of their fingers. That’s right, the difference in length between your 2nd finger (or pointer finger) and your 4th finger (or ring finger) is thought to be an indirect measurement of testosterone levels you were exposed to during fetal development. The more testosterone, the longer your ring finger compared to you pointer finger.

In a recent study, researchers from the University of Liverpool and Oxford used this measurement to link aggressiveness in primates with the levels of prenatal testosterone in utero. They found that Old World monkeys tended to have a low 4th digit (4D) to 2nd digit (2D) ratio (i.e. their ring fingers were longer than their pointer fingers) and also exhibited aggressive, competitive, and promiscuous behavior. New World monkeys (like gibbons), on the other hand, along with Great Apes (like chimps and orangutans) tended to have a higher 2D:4D ratio. These species were found to exhibit much more cooperative and tolerant behavior. The results of the study have implications for our own social behaviors. We live in large multi-male, multi-female groups and are (usually) quite cooperative. This study, and more like it, could start to shed light on the origins of our sociality.

The use of digit ratio as a measurement of prenatal testosterone is not new, however. Many researchers have used it even in humans (we are primates after all) to try and predict various behaviors, aptitudes, and personal characteristics. For example, some of the traits suggested to correlate with low digit ratios (ring longer than pointer) include greater male fertility, assertiveness in women, and greater musical and athletic ability. These studies looked at the increased competitive nature brought out in individuals with exposure to high levels of prenatal testosterone.

So the next time someone cuts you off, just know it might be the case that their 4th digit is longer than their 2nd… so try to leave your 3rd digit out of it.

Nov
04
2009

Blue, blue, my ears are blue.: The blue morpho butterfly hears through ears on its wings.
Blue, blue, my ears are blue.: The blue morpho butterfly hears through ears on its wings.Courtesy William Warby

The blue morpho does. Scientists have found that this large butterfly of Central and South America has ears on its wings. These primitive ears can distinguish between the high-frequency sound of a bid singing, and the low-frequency sound of a bird flapping its wings. A singing bird is a sitting bird, and thus no threat to the morpho, but a flying bird could be attacking, and detecting those sounds tells the butterfly when to beat a slow, erratic retreat.

(Wait a minute…Blue Morpho…wasn’t he a character in Yellow Submarine Reloaded?)

Nov
01
2009

Richard Lenski (top) and Jeffrey Barrick view bacteria cultures in Lenski's lab.: They have watched the bacteria's DNA evolve over 40,000 generations.
Richard Lenski (top) and Jeffrey Barrick view bacteria cultures in Lenski's lab.: They have watched the bacteria's DNA evolve over 40,000 generations.Courtesy Michigan State University / photo by G.L. Kohuth

Sometimes you’ll hear people cast doubts on evolution because no one has ever seen it happen. As if that’s some sort of great insight. No one has eve “seen” atomic fusion, either, but the fact that the Sun was shining this morning is pretty strong evidence that, yep, it happens. No one has ever “seen” gravity. Seen gravity’s effects, sure. But seen gravity itself? Like Ms. Ono once asked, Who Has Seen The Wind?

Evolution used to be in the same boat. The effects of evolution are visible everywhere, in every cell of every living thing on the planet. But seeing the actual process of evolution? That was another matter.

Until now. Scientists at Michigan State University (go Spartans!) have been growing bacteria in bottles for the past 21 years. Every so often, they would freeze a sample for later study. Well, “later” is now. DNA sequencing and computer analysis have advanced to the state where they can readily map the genome of each sample. And guess what? The bugs evolved exactly as evolution says they should. Mutations in the genome pop up at random intervals. Mutations that help the bug survive—like make more efficient use of food, or fend off disease—get passed on to future generations, and eventually spread through the entire colony.

Twenty-one years may not seem like enough time for a species to change. But, as Mia Sorvino said in the truly awful 1997 movie Mimic, think generations, not time. In the two decades of study, the little bacteria went through 40 thousand generations—the equivalent of roughly 800,000 years in human terms. Plenty of opportunity for evolution to do it’s thang.

And the experiment continues. Understanding mutations in bacteria might help us understand the mutations that lead to some forms of cancer. In recent generations, the rate of mutation has increased; the scientists would like to know why.

Richard Lenski, the scientist heading up the research, has put together a video explaining his work.

Oct
29
2009

Deer Rumen: Opening up a deer's rumen.
Deer Rumen: Opening up a deer's rumen.Courtesy Kirk Mona
Ever wondered what's inside the stomach of a deer? For those not afraid of some graphic photos, the Twin Cities Naturalist Blog. has posted photos and descriptions of the four parts of a deer's stomach. Here's a quick overview.

  • The Rumen is a fermentation and storage vat. Micro-organisms break down a lot of food in the Rumen so it can be absorbed by the deer but it does not physically break down the food with acid like a human stomach.
  • The Reticulum is basically a filter that allows small particles to pass to the Omasum.
  • The Omasum acts like a sponge that draws off excess water before food is passed to the next step.
  • The Abomasum works like your stomach to break down food with acid so nutrients can be absorbed.

You can see all the photos and read more at Twin Cities Naturalist.

Oct
27
2009

It's smiling!: But wait until it gets bitten in half.
It's smiling!: But wait until it gets bitten in half.Courtesy Pterantula
Not much to say here other than… Holy Smokes! Check his out: a huge shark bitten in half by an even huger shark!

Shark fishermen in Queensland Australia pulled a ten-foot great white from a baited drum line to discover that the shark had been nearly bitten in half by an even bigger shark. Again, take a look. And the 10-footer was still alive when they pulled it into the boat. (Yowza.)

The think that the larger shark was also a great white, and that it might be as large as 20 feet long. A shark that size weighs about 4,400 pounds. There’s been some debate regarding the maximum size of a great white, but 20 feet is probably about as large as they can get. (In the late 19th century and early 20th century, there were reports of sharks caught that measured over 30 feet, but reexamination indicated that they were probably significantly shorter.) At any rate, the shark in Jaws (I think its name was Eustace) was supposed to be 25 feet long, so 20 feet is nothing to sneeze at. Unless huge sharks make you sneeze.

Happy shark attack Tuesday!