A spoonful of friendly bacteria helps the medicine go down

Tom James @ 21-08-2009

pillsGenetically engineered bacteria have been used to deliver therapies for bowel disorders like inflammatory bowel disease:

The bacterium is able to deliver the protein, a human growth factor called KGF-2, directly to the damaged cells that line the gut, unlike other treatments which can cause unwanted side effects. Also unlike other treatments, it is envisaged that patients will be able to control the medication themselves by ingesting xylan, perhaps in the form of a drink.

I am not 1 of the 400 Britons who suffers from IBD but it is wonderful to see that genetic engineering has such excellent medical applications.

[from Science Daily][image from Deco Fernandez on flickr]


GM crops and the war on poverty

Paul Raven @ 09-07-2009

field of wheatOver at The Guardian, Professor Mark Tester stands up to say that genetically modified crops are an essential component of the struggle to erase world poverty and hunger:

GM crops are not the answer to this shameful global situation, but I argue strongly that they provide another tool, another option to try to address the problem. And I do not think those of us sitting in comfortable wealth have a right to deny people the opportunity to improve their production of food. The technology is just that, a technology. Like nuclear technologies (radiotherapy or nuclear weapons) or mobile phones (communication or bomb triggers), how we use it is the main issue. I hope that the plants we have generated provide a subtle use of GM technology that will allow some positive benefits for the developing world.

He’s quite correct, of course; as we mention here quite often, the morality of a tool comes from the hand that wields it. And therein lies the rub: while GM crops have the potential to improve the lives of those less fortunate than ourselves, they can also be (and allegedly are) used to paint them into an economic corner for the purposes of maximising profits – selling farmers the only seeds that will survive the pesticides which you also manufacture, for example. [image by James Wheare]

I don’t know how it is in the States, but here in the UK GM crops are a hugely sensitive topic with a sharp polarity of opinion that has been amplified by propaganda, celebrity campaigning and emotional button-pushing from both sides of the debate. Such extreme viewpoints actually end up clouding the issue; somewhere in the shades of grey is a way to use genetic modification safely for the benefit of everyone, but until we start meeting each other half way we leave the field wide open for both poverty and profiteering to continue.


Oil You Can Eat: Bacteria Eat Rubbish, Egest Petrol

Tom James @ 16-06-2008

Splendid news from Silicon Valley: a flotilla of companies, including one called LS9, are now starting toblack_gold genetically engineer bacteria that poop petrol and eat any old rubbish:

Because crude oil (which can be refined into other products, such as petroleum or jet fuel) is only a few molecular stages removed from the fatty acids normally excreted by yeast or E. coli during fermentation, it does not take much fiddling to get the desired result.

For fermentation to take place you need raw material, or feedstock, as it is known in the biofuels industry. Anything will do as long as it can be broken down into sugars, with the byproduct ideally burnt to produce electricity to run the plant.

The key facts are that this is a carbon-neutral method of producing conventional crude oil (and all the good stuff you can get out of crude oil), that doesn’t cause food inflation, consumes waste biomass, and doesn’t require us to spend $billions upgrading our current transport infrastructure to compatibility with hydrogen fuel cells.

The company is not interested in using corn as feedstock, given the much-publicised problems created by using food crops for fuel, such as the tortilla inflation that recently caused food riots in Mexico City. Instead, different types of agricultural waste will be used according to whatever makes sense for the local climate and economy: wheat straw in California, for example, or woodchips in the South.

The main onion in the ointment seems to be the scale required to produce the amount of oil needed:green_oil

However, to substitute America’s weekly oil consumption of 143 million barrels, you would need a facility that covered about 205 square miles, an area roughly the size of Chicago.

This is it: with oil prices continuing to break records and global warming coming around the corner this is the direction we need to go in (unless there’s some other huge problem with it, aside from the Chicago-sized thing?).

[story at Times Online, via Charlie’s Diary][images by nalilo and XcBiker]


Genetically modified plants silence pest’s genes

Stephen Years @ 05-11-2007

corn.jpgScientists have already created genetically modified crops that produce proteins that are toxic to the pests that eat them. Now they have gone a step further and created plants that literally rewrite the genetic code of the insects that eat them. The genetically modified crops use a process called RNA interference:

RNA interference occurs naturally in animals ranging from worms to humans. It’s a process whereby double-stranded RNA copies of specific genes prevent cells from translating those genes into proteins. The new genetically modified plants carry genes for double-stranded RNA targeted to particular insect genes…

Researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, in Shanghai, made cotton plants that silence a gene that allows cotton bollworms to process the toxin gossypol, which occurs naturally in cotton. Bollworms that eat the genetically engineered cotton can’t make their toxin-processing proteins, and they die. Researchers at Monsanto and Devgen, a Belgian company, made corn plants that silence a gene essential for energy production in corn rootworms; ingestion wipes out the worms within 12 days.