First artificial organelle

Tom James @ 05-08-2009

artificial_organelleResearchers have developed an artificial cellular organelle to aid in the development of artificial synthesis the life-saving anti-clotting drug heparin:

Scientists have been working to create a synthetic version of the medication, because the current production method leaves it susceptible to contamination–in 2008, such an incident was responsible for killing scores of people. But the drug has proven incredibly difficult to create in a lab.

Much of the mystery of heparin production stems from the site of its natural synthesis: a cellular organelle called the Golgi apparatus, which processes and packages proteins for transport out of the cell, decorating the proteins with sugars to make glycoproteins. Precisely how it does this has eluded generations of scientists.

To better understand what was going on inside the Golgi, Linhardt and his colleagues decided to create their own version. The result: the first known artificial cell organelle, a small microfluidics chip that mimics some of the Golgi’s actions.

As well as the utility of being able to produce drugs in this way, it is impressive the degree of control that can be exerted over the matter:

The digital device allows the researchers to control the movement of a single microscopic droplet while they add enzymes and sugars, split droplets apart, and slowly build a molecule chain like heparin.

[from Technology Review, via KurzwailAI][image from Technology Review]

Re-engineering biology

Tom James @ 31-07-2009

roboticsinsiAs I’ve mentioned before, we’re entering a new phase of technological progress: engineers and technologists are not just seeking inspiration in the mechanisms of the natural world, but are actually reverse- and re-engineering biology to improve synthetic technology. In this case researchers in Germany are studying how bow flies perform their incredible feats of aerial acrobatics by creating a wind tunnel for blow flies (pictured):

A fly’s brain enables the unbelievable – the animal’s easy negotiation of obstacles in rapid flight, split-second reaction to the hand that would catch it, and unerring navigation to the smelly delicacies it lives on.

Yet the fly’s brain is hardly bigger than a pinhead, too small by far to enable the fly’s feats if it functioned exactly the way the human brain does. It must have a simpler and more efficient way of processing images from the eyes into visual perception, and that is a subject of intense interest for robot builders.

While researchers use biomimetic inspiration for the development of flying robots other scientists are working to reprogram existing biological technology, in this case altering bone marrow stem cells so that they function as retinal cells:

University of Florida researchers were able to program bone marrow stem cells to repair damaged retinas in mice, suggesting a potential treatment for one of the most common causes of vision loss in older people.

The success in repairing a damaged layer of retinal cells in mice implies that blood stem cells taken from bone marrow can be programmed to restore a variety of cells and tissues, including ones involved in cardiovascular disorders such as atherosclerosis and coronary artery disease.

For all the pessimism about the future of human civilisation, it is exhilerating to live in an era with so many opportunities and challenges.

[both from Physorg][image from Physorg]

Bacterial computers to solve complex mathematics problems

Tom James @ 24-07-2009

bacteriaWe’ve seen viruses used to help treat cancer, and help building electrical components, now bacteria are being used to solve hitherto intractable mathematics problems:

Imagine you want to tour the 10 biggest cities in the UK, starting in London (number 1) and finishing in Bristol (number 10). The solution to the Hamiltonian Path Problem is the the shortest possible route you can take.

This simple problem is surprisingly difficult to solve. There are over 3.5 million possible routes to choose from, and a regular computer must try them out one at a time to find the shortest. Alternatively, a computer made from millions of bacteria can look at every route simultaneously. The biological world also has other advantages. As time goes by, a bacterial computer will actually increase in power as the bacteria reproduce.

These developments in synthetic biology are really amazing: it is just another example of how researchers are looking at pre-existing biological structures to solve problems (albeit somewhat abstract problems in this case) instead of building technologies from scratch.

[from the Guardian][image from kaibara87 on flickr]

Brain achieves motor memory with a prosthetic device

Tom James @ 22-07-2009

braindevelopMore progress has been made in the field of artificial telekinesis by researchers at University of California, who have shown that the brains of macacque monkeys can learn how to manipulate a prosthetic through thought alone:

…macaque monkeys using brain signals learned how to move a computer cursor to various targets. What the researchers learned was that the brain could develop a mental map of a solution to achieve the task with high proficiency, and that it adhered to that neural pattern without deviation, much like a driver sticks to a given route commuting to work.

“The profound part of our study is that this is all happening with something that is not part of one’s own body. We have demonstrated that the brain is able to form a motor memory to control a disembodied device in a way that mirrors how it controls its own body. That has never been shown before.”

This is an exciting development. Developing the means to control prosthetics as if they were part of your own body would improve the lives of paraplegics, and even offer the possibility of extending baseline human abilities.

[from Physorg, via KurzweilAI][image from Physorg]

Long lived flies

Tom James @ 15-07-2009

flyA company called Genescient is developing a method for finding genes that affect human longevity using the power of the gene:

Genescient has identified over 100 gene networks (∆’s) that are altered in long lived strains of Drosophila melanogaster and that are also linked to longevity and age-related diseases in humans.

Genescient has sophisticated software that cross links gene function in Drosophila with possible human therapeutics for age-related diseases. Drosophila is an excellent model system of aging and age-related disease that has many genetic pathways that are highly conserved in humans. Therefore, therapeutic substances that act on genetic pathways in Drosophila often work similarly in humans.

It is truly exciting to live in this era when increasing human longevity is a serious area of research.

[via Next Big Future][image from AmpamukA on flickr]

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