Monday, January 28, 2008

Bioscience News Roundup: 01-28-08

Here are some of the interesting biology stories from the past week:

First off, there are all kinds of interesting bioscience posts rounded up for the Tangled Bank blog carnival at The Innoculated Mind. Also, John Wilkins has rounded up basic science concept posts at ScienceBlogs.

The big news of the past week was a report from the Venter Institute that they had succeeded in assembling an entire microbial genome from synthesized DNA. As Technology Review reports:

Biologists creating genetically engineered organisms now routinely order pieces of DNA that are 10,000 to 20,000 base pairs long--big enough to incorporate the genes for a single metabolic pathway. That allows researchers to engineer microbes that can perform specific tasks, but the ability to synthesize entire genomes could grant a whole new level of control over biological design. [. . . ] In the new study, scientists ordered 101 DNA fragments, encompassing the entire Mycoplasma genome, from commercial DNA synthesis companies. These fragments were designed so that each overlapped its neighboring sequence by a small amount; these overlapping stretches stick together, thanks to the chemical properties of DNA. Researchers then bound the fragments piece by piece, eventually generating the full 582,970 base pair Mycoplasma sequence.

The next step is to show that the synthesized genome is functional. Venter Institutes's ultimate goal is to create a completely synthetic organism.
Wired has several related articles:
The Panda's Thumb reports on a couple of cool articles that show how unicellular organisms like the giant slime mould can learn and remember.

Greg Laden has video of a talk by UC Biologist Robert Full on analyzing the motions of cockroaches, crabs and geckos and applying the information to creating "the perfect robotic distributed foot."

New Scientist shares a report on space-bred cockroaches from the Russian News agency Novosti:
. . . baby cockroaches conceived aboard a satellite in September have apparently grown up to be faster and tougher than their terrestrial brethren.The first creatures ever conceived in space also grew more quickly than ordinary Earth-bred cockroaches.
A team of scientists from the University of Wisconsin, Madison and the University of Washington have analyzed the genome of the diatom Thalassiosira pseudonana and found a set of 75 genes involved in processing silica to form hard cell walls:
The new data will enable Sussman to start manipulating the genes responsible for silica production and potentially harness them to produce lines on computer chips. This could vastly increase chip speed, Sussman says, because diatoms are capable of producing lines much smaller than current technology allows.
Technology Review reports on studies of rural Ecuaorians who have a rare mutation making them resistant to grown hormone. The condition not only causes dwarfism and obesity, but also seems to protect from artherosclerosis and possibly cancer and type 2 diabetes. The hope is that it also increases longevity, as a similar mutation does in mice.
"In the mouse, the effect is major and striking," says Andrzej Bartke, a biologist at Southern Illinois University in Springfield, who is not involved in the project. "They seem protected from cancer and appear to have delayed aging by various measures. But there is almost no evidence that growth-hormone deficiency would extend life in humans."
Mind Hacks writes about a recent article by neuoscientist R. Douglas Fields that compares brain size and function across species.

It turns out that while whales have bigger brains, humans have more neurons. Nevertheless, whales have more glial cells.

Glial cells were traditionally thought to do nothing more than support and insulate the neurons, but it's becoming increasingly clear that they're actually part of the brain's processing system (although they're exact role is far from clear).

So maybe there's a lot more to the whale brain that it first appears.

Finally, ScientificMatch is a Boston-based dating service with a twist.
. . . personal chemistry matching is done via DNA analysis. The immune system is what has been found to affect sexual compatibility, with people tending to prefer those whose immune systems are different from their own. The benefits of well-matched immune systems, according to research cited by ScientificMatch, include a more satisfying sex life, increased faithfulness, higher fertility and healthier children. Members who sign up for the company's USD 1,995.95 service send a cheek swab to ScientificMatch, which analyses the portion of their DNA that relates to the immune system. Matches are then suggested with other members who have compatible chemistry. The matching process won't work for women on the pill or for people who weren't raised by their natural parents, ScientificMatch cautions. It will, however, work for those seeking same-sex relationships.
I'd be interested in knowing whether ScientificMatch has a higher success rate than eharmony or chemistry.com .

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