Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Bioscience News Roundup: 7-25-07

Here's an overview of some of the interesting bioscience news from the past week.

The Search For Alien Life

The Register takes a look at the National Research Council's report, The Limits of Organic Life in Our Solar System (by which I think they mean The Limits of Organic Life in Planetary Systems) It may not require water, and it may not be carbon based, so how can we look for extraterrestrial life?

Add to this the new complexity of looking for life that is unfamiliar, and the already formidable challenge becomes truly daunting. Burchell puts his finger on the problem: it is too complicated to test for life remotely, but you can't send an astronaut to do it because you would, in the best tradition of a twisty CSI plot, contaminate the scene.

This is where the cameras come in.

"A better alternative is to send a camera and look for changes. If you see a change, you can try to assign a reason for it. Are the seasons changing and frost melting, or have you observed something else, maybe a biological process," he says.

Astrobiology Magazine's take on the report is that space missions will have to make their tests for life as inclusive as possible.
Planned Mars missions, for example, should include instruments that detect components of light elements -- especially carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorous, and sulfur -- as well as simple organic functional groups and organic carbon.
Astrobiology interviewed the European Space Agency's Jorge Vago about the ExoMars program, scheduled to land on Mars in 2013. The goal is to search "for past and present life."
The idea is that we want to pick up where Viking left off, in terms of looking for life signatures, and try to answer once and for all if indeed there are oxidants there, if the oxidants are destroying the organics, if we see a relationship - or actually, I should say an anti-correlation - between the presence of oxidants and organics as we move down in the subsurface. And of course we also have instrumentation that will be able to answer other questions, more classical ones, related to mineralogy. To understand the possible biomarkers and interpret whether indeed they are biomarkers or not, we also need to know a bit about the geological context. So we have these other instruments with us that, even if we don’t find any organics, will provide good science.
Earthly Science

Art of the future? At Eye on DNA Hsien-Hsein Lei reports on the combination of genetics and art. Dr. Peter N. Gray creates sculptures and paintings that "reflect concepts from genetics, microbiology, and physics." Adam Zaretsky is a bit more offbeat: he runs a workshop called Hybrid DNA Isolation: A Hobbyist Workshop and an Exploration of the Unnamable.

The Beam Me Up blog reports on scientists who have engineered nematodes so that their muscles respond to colored light.
One possibility is that the technology, coupled with a method of getting light into the human skull, could create a Brave New World of neuro-modification in which conditions such as depression or Parkinson's disease are treated not with sledgehammer drugs or electrodes, but with delicate pinpricks of light.
That getting light into the skull might be a major stumbling blog to this approach, unless trepanation makes a comeback. For an overview of the technology, see the Nature News and Views "Controlling neural circuits with light." (pdf)

The complete mitochondrial genome of a 50,o00-130,000 year old mastodon ago has been sequenced. While a significant achievement, mitochondrial DNA is only about 16,500 base pairs, a mere fraction of the roughly 4 billion base pairs in a typical elephant genome. We're still a long way from Jurassic Park. You can read the paper in the open-access journal PLoS Biology.

The New Scientist article "Why 'junk DNA' may be useful after all" was given a thumbs up by University of Toronto biochemist Larry Moran. Read his post for background about the current scientific thought on "junk DNA" (which is not the same as "non-coding DNA").

New Scientist reports that new software
has been developed that can recognize dolphin species by their whistles. It's a far cry from real communication, of course. Hopefully the first dolphin message we understand is not "so long, and thanks for all the fish."

Finally, Posthuman Blues points to a report that concludes "Deadly germs may be more likely to be spread due to a biodefence lab accident than a biological attack by terrorists." For some reason I find the idea of accidental plague more frightening than a planned attack.

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1 comment:

  1. Anonymous4:26 PM

    It would seem common sense that drilling a hole in one's head would not be recommended for one's health and well being. Really? What if you were told that Bill Clinton's mentor at Oxford University, Lord James Neidpath, drilled a hole in his head? Or that the procedure is as old as the ancient Egyptians and Incas that practiced it? Or that those who have undergone the surgery report added energy, increased brain power, and even induce a permanent feeling of high?

    It is the strange phenomena of trepanation, the procedure of drilling a small hole through one's skull, that is examined by an hour-long documentary released by alternative/rock musician Cevin Soling. 'A Hole In the Head' examines the development of "modern" trepanation as used by people in the United Kingdom, the United States, and The Netherlands for the purpose of attaining a higher level of consciousness.

    The DVD can purchased online at


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