Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Bioscience News Roundup: 7-11-07

Some of the interesting biology and biotechnology news stories from the past couple of weeks:

Scientists at MIT were able to reverse mental retardation caused by fragile X syndrome by blocking an enzyme involved in cellular development. As Scientific American (and lots of others ) point out, this is reminiscent of Daniel Keys' Flowers for Algernon in which surgery is used to boost the intelligence of the mouse Algernon and janitor Charlie Gordon. Hopefully the long term results are better in real life than in fiction.

Technology Review talks to Ari Patrinos, president of Synthetic Genomics, about engineering microbes to harvest oil. Craig Venter, founder of Synthetic Genomics, reported a major step in that direction; transferring an entire genome from one microbe to another. As Technology Review reports:
For Venter's team, the genome transplant is a step toward engineering microbial machines to efficiently produce fuel. The researchers are currently trying to stitch together a synthetic version of the genome of Mycoplasma genitalium, a bacterium found in the human genital tract, which Venter's group has been studying for more than a decade. By rearranging or deleting specific chunks of the synthetic genome and inserting it into a bacterial host, scientists should be able to figure out which genes are critical for the organism to function--in essence, the minimal genome. This minimal genome could then be modified to carry fuel-producing genes, and the entire string of DNA could be transplanted into a bacterial carrier.
You can listen to an interview with Venter on the June 29 Science Friday.

According to Technology Review, the Rothberg Institute will be initiating what it calls the Methuselah Project: sequencing the DNA of 100 people who are 100 years old, or older. They will only be looking at the DNA sequences that encode proteins. They apparently believe any genetic changes that increase lifespan will most likely affect protein sequences rather than the stretches of DNA that regulate when and in which cells those proteins are expressed.

TED Talks has video of a lecture by professor of surgery and chemical engineering Alan Russell on Why can't we grow new body parts?

The New Scientist Short Sharp Science blog reports on the recent report of a test of a memory erasing drug, Propranolol, on people who had experienced traumatic events.

Margaret Talbot writes for the New Yorker about using brain scans to uncover lies. It sounds like the technology currently lies on the boundary of pseudoscience.

The June 22 issue of Slate looks at "recombination of man and beast" - animals carrying human DNA - based on a report from the British Academy of Medical Sciences (pdf).
Last month, ethicists from Stanford University and the University of Wisconsin detailed a proposal by a Stanford scientist to substitute human brain stem cells for dying neurons in fetal mice. "The result would be a mouse brain, the neurons of which were mainly human in origin," they reported. The payoff, if the fetuses survived, would be "a laboratory animal that could be used for experiments on living, in vivo, human neurons." Imagine that: a humanoid brain network you can treat like a lab animal, because it is a lab animal.
Meanwhile the Roman Catholic Church has opined that human-animal hybrids should be considered to be human. (via Womens Bioethics Blog)
"The bishops, who believe that life begins at conception, said that they opposed the creation of any embryo solely for research, but they were also anxious to limit the destruction of such life once it had been brought into existence. In their submission to the committee, they said: 'At the very least, embryos with a preponderance of human genes should be assumed to be embryonic human beings, and should be treated accordingly.'"
On June 26, the New York Times devoted the science section to stories about evolution. The stories (you'll need a free account or bugmenot):

Michelle Wirth takes at takes a look at human pheromones for Scientific American Observations. She points out some of the problems with a recent study by Claire Wyart and colleagues that tested whether women responded to a chemical - androstadienone - in male sweat.

The inhabitat blog reports on wall insulation grown from a culture of mushrooms (via Beyond the Beyond)

Neurofuture reports on a collaboration between University of Calgary researchers and artists Dr. Morley Hollenberg, Alan Dunning and Paul Woodrow called the Shapes of Thought.
Participants were monitored by EEG, and EKG sensors and asked to recall traumatic events from their past. Participants agreed to undergo hypnosis and aid in the recollection and reliving of events in which they were deeply afflected by anger, fear, joy or other primary emotions.
The EEG data was translated into three dimensional images in real time.

Finally, Mind Hacks reports that the text book Neuropsychopharmacology: The Fifth Generation is now available online for free. It ". . . covers the cutting edge of pretty much everything we know about how drugs affect the mind and brain."

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