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A private group of genetic engineers in the US have a plan to create light-emitting plants for “sustainable natural lighting”. The plants will include the luciferase gene, as present in fireflies and genetically modified rabbits commissioned by artists; the ultimate aim is to provide a better than carbon-neutral replacement for street lights and household lamps.
To create the glowing plants, the team will first generate modified genes with the Genome Compiler software, then insert them into Arabidopsis, a small flowering plant related to mustard and cabbage (they make sure to point out that the plant is not edible). The main gene, luciferase, is the same one that makes fireflies light up the night.As luciferase is not sufficiently bright to light a street, or even a living room, the project will require optimisation; the engineers already have enhanced the gene's light output to an extent.
A Kickstarter campaign was started to fund the research, with those (in the US) contributing $40 or more to receive a packet of glowing plant seeds in return. To day, the campaign, which aimed for $65,000, has raised $216,536, with 33 days to go.
It'll be interesting to see if this is successful; will we see streets lit by fluorescing trees, or find ourselves putting a plantshade over the bedside plant when going to sleep? And will plants that emit a useful amount of light need to be fed large quantities of a sufficiently high-energy plant food to keep glowing?
In recent medical/biotechnological breakthroughs: players in an online game simulating protein folding have successfully determined the 3-dimensional structure of a protein in a simian virus related to HIV, a hard problem which is not feasible to do with brute-force computation:
Teams of players collaborate to tweak a molecule’s model by folding it up in different ways. The result looks somewhat tangled, but each one is scored on criteria such as how tightly folded it is and whether the fold avoids atoms clashing. The structure with the highest score wins. Anyone can play and most of the gamers have little or no background in biochemistry.
“People have spatial reasoning skills, something computers are not yet good at. Games provide a framework for bringing together the strengths of computers and humans. The results in this week’s paper show that gaming, science and computation can be combined to make advances that were not possible before.”Meanwhile, an experiment in using genetically modified HIV to destroy cancer cells has worked spectacularly well, with an experimental patient apparently having been cured of leukaemia, and remaining in full remission one year later:
At first, nothing happened. But after 10 days, hell broke loose in his hospital room. He began shaking with chills. His temperature shot up. His blood pressure shot down. He became so ill that doctors moved him into intensive care and warned that he might die. His family gathered at the hospital, fearing the worst. A few weeks later, the fevers were gone. And so was the leukemia.
But scientists say the treatment that helped Mr. Ludwig ... may signify a turning point in the long struggle to develop effective gene therapies against cancer. And not just for leukemia patients: other cancers may also be vulnerable to this novel approach — which employs a disabled form of H.I.V.-1, the virus that causes AIDS, to carry cancer-fighting genes into the patients’ T-cells. In essence, the team is using gene therapy to accomplish something that researchers have hoped to do for decades: train a person’s own immune system to kill cancer cells.Meanwhile, HIV research has yielded an unexpected boon, in the form of cats that glow in the dark.
Craig Venter (of Human Genome Project fame) has succeeded in creating synthetic life; i.e., of creating a living cell whose genome was entirely written from scratch in the laboratory. Venter's first commercialisation of the discovery will be a deal with ExxonMobil to create algae which absorb carbon dioxide and create hydrocarbon fuel. Beyond that, the possibilities are vast; from the mundane (cancer cures, new terrorist bioweapons, weird new designer drugs for mutant freak subcultures out of a Warren Ellis or John Shirley story) on to the horizon of the unimaginable.
And Quinn Norton says that we've just lost the War On Drugs, but not as badly as the drug lords, whose business model looks as doomed as the RIAA's:
You know what’s a lot easier than all the high minded business about environment, or life extension, or even the scary doomsday 12 Monkeys scenarios? Growing simpler molecule drugs. I don’t mean like aspirin, I mean like heroin and cocaine, THC and hallucinogens. They already grow in plants thoroughly studied, and people are motivated and not at all risk averse about getting those sequences somewhere they can use them. Cooking meth is hard and dangerous science compared to the ability to get a starter of a minimal cell that poops heroin and feeding it growth medium in your closet. We may have lost the drug war, but not as badly as the drug lords have.
It’s still hard to grow drugs in medium. But the whole point of this project is to make it easier. Who will be motivated to put in the work to make it happen? Especially if it’s so bad for organized crime? Drug addicts, frankly. You think they look like street junkies with DTs, but a fair number look like scientists, because they are. Drugs will finally be p2p, and governments and drug lords alike will find out what it’s like to be media companies and counterfeiters in a world of lossless copying and 100Mb pipes. Junkies will be victims of their success, and if we don’t get serious about treating addiction instead of trying to fight chemicals, it’s going to look a lot more bloody and horrid than the RIAA’s lawsuit factory. This is just one vision of what this kind of disruption looks like when people get a hold of it.
A new application of genetic engineering: permakittens, or cats which never mature.
Everybody loves kittens. The only thing wrong with them is that they turn into cats. So we'll make genetically modified cats that never get big. I've bounced this off a couple of honest-to-goodness biologists who assured me it is 100% doable and even gave me some tips.The author of the idea, one Dylan Stiles, has worked out the genetics of it (or claims to have; not being a biologist, I can't verify whether what he's saying is plausible). Cleverly enough, his idea includes its own copy-protection mechanisms, in that the permakittens will not produce unlicensed knockoffs. (Which would be the case if they remained actual kittens, which they're not; they do mature, whilst remaining
Two researchers at Berkeley have created a virus which fights AIDS. This virus is a modified version of HIV with the harmful parts replaced by a mechanism that inhibits HIV's ability to kill immune cells. The anti-AIDS virus is sexually transmissible, much as HIV is, which means that now it is hypothetically possible to screw a sick person healthy. (They may have to get rid of this if they ever market it, as not to lose revenue; otherwise they could sell multi-user site-licenses to sexually promiscuous patients, or put a celibacy clause in their licenses and prosecute violators under copyright laws.)
First a Brazilian artist commissioned a glow-in-the-dark rabbit, and now a biotech company is displaying fluorescent white mice at the Bio Taiwan 2003 expo. With photo, though whether they really look like that is debatable. (via jwz)
The latest from the frontiers of science: in the future, gravestones and other such memorials may be replaced by trees containing the DNA of the deceased. Though whether people would want to eat apples containing their grandmothers' DNA is a cultural question yet to be answered. Meanwhile, science has found the perfect eyebrow shape, bringing humanity one step closer to a race of superhumanly beautiful cyborgs.
Obituary: Dolly the cloned sheep is dead; she was euthanased after coming down with a number of chronic ailments. Her premature aging (she was 6) has cast doubt over the ability of cloning to create healthy animals.
Biotech companies use algorithmic music composition tools to convert DNA to music; not for artistic reasons, but to take advantage of the virtually perpetual terms of music copyrights (95 years, but extended by law every decade or so), as opposed to 17-year patents. Sounds like post-cyberpunk fiction, doesn't it?
(There we have it: the very concept of "art" is now a weapon of copyright fascism. It doesn't bode well for when the pendulum swings back.) (via bOING bOING)
To protest biotechnology patent laws, which often give multinational corporations absolute rights over basic foodstuffs (even if they had been grown for centuries), a development charity is planning to patent salted potato chips. By patenting a new pre-salted chip, ActionAid are hoping to own the rights to the concept of salted potato chips, which in theory could be used to levy license fees from chip shops under threat of patent infringement lawsuit.
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