BioHacking: The Plot for the Next Real-life Blockbuster Thriller?

6a00d8341bf7f753ef0120a63da3c2970b-500wiSolitary citizens are toiling over test-tubes, sacrificing their time and money to create brand new lifeforms – but this isn’t a science fiction movie, it’s a hobby.  “DIY Biochemistry” sees private citizens converting their dining rooms into DNA labs.  It’s only a pity that Michael Crichton has passed on, because we’ve got the plot of his next book right here.

With a wealth of online guides, biochemical supply companies and even craigslist cryogenic equipment, hobbyists or collectives like the Cambridge group “DIYbio” are enabling determined individuals to engineer their own organisms.  The self-titled “biohackers” paint a picture of “citizen scientists”, freeing genetic engineering from the stuffy confines of university and corporate labs.  We would point out that anybody keen on freeing anything from a containment lab might not have a full understanding of what they’re doing.

The almost anti-scientist sentiment that “regular people should be able to do this without years of study” is fundamentally flawed – those years of study are what enable professionals to know what they’re at. These people demand “Why shouldn’t we be allowed to do this in our own homes?”, and if you have to even ask that question you truly don’t know the answer.

We don’t doubt that many useful results will come out of the DIY DNA diversion, and anything which increases the public’s knowledge of this crucial branch of science has a good side.  The sheer spectrum of ideas that can come from hobbyists has been proved time and again by the internet, and harnessed safely by such mass-simulations as FoldIt. Also unquestionable is that the vast majority of these projects will be only beneficial, at worst failures which achieve nothing, and any imagined terrorist threats are vastly overstated.

But it only takes one.  A single amateur ecology-alterer managed to devastate Australia with a bag of rabbits back in the day, and he didn’t even have a biochem lab.  Caution is advised.

Proponents proudly point out how Apple and Google were started by similarly small-scale entrepreneurs.  The problem, of course, is that the first Apple computer couldn’t replicate uncontrollably and dominate the entire globe.  Likewise Google – well, okay, that did happen with Google but it seems to have worked out.  But we won’t have the same guarantee with gengineered bacteria.

Posted by Luke McKinney




Bay Bridge closure snarls San Francisco traffic

091028-bay-bridge-hmed-230a.h2A snapped rod and a  metal brace fell onto the Bay Bridge’s westbound lanes on Tuesday night.

SAN FRANCISCO – Commuters clogged alternative routes and flocked to alternative transportation Wednesday after a snapped rod forced the indefinite closure of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, used by 280,000 motorists daily.

Engineers will evaluate the damage caused when the rod and metal brace fell into the 73-year-old landmark bridge’s westbound lanes during Tuesday evening’s rush hour.

At least two vehicles — a car and a small truck — either were struck by or ran into the fallen rod, said California Highway Patrol Officer Peter Van Eckhardt, but no injuries were reported.

The California Department of Transportation said Tuesday that the bridge will remain closed indefinitely.

A spokesman for the Bay Area Rapid Transit District, meanwhile, said extra trains would run during the morning commute.

The rod that fell Tuesday was erected last month during an emergency repair job. It was holding in place a saddle-like cap that had been installed over a cracked link discovered over the Labor Day weekend.

When the rod apparently snapped at about 5:30 p.m., it brought down with it a steel patch roughly 3 feet long, authorities said.

“If you look at the totality of the circumstances — you’ve got the 5:30 commute, you have a 5,000-pound piece of steel falling out of the sky. We are so fortunate that no one was injured or killed,” CHP Sgt. Trent Cross told KTVU-TV.

Officers managed to clear the Oakland-bound traffic from the lower deck of the bridge by 8 p.m. but were still clearing cars from the few remaining open lanes of the upper deck an hour later, he said.

No timetable for repairs
The bridge was closed last month over the holiday weekend while long-planned earthquake safety upgrades were being made to the bridge. When the crack was discovered, state transportation officials initially feared it would prevent them from reopening the span in time for the start of the work week.

But the unexpected work only ended up taking a few extra hours.

California Department of Transportation, or Caltrans, officials had nothing to say Tuesday about what might have caused the repair job to fail. The department issued a brief statement saying only that “structural engineers and inspectors are onsite to assess the damage and will make a determination as to how long repairs will take.

“At this time, the bridge is closed until further notice,” the statement said.

Abolhassan Astaneh-Asl, a civil engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has spent 20 years studying the Bay Bridge, called the initial crack a “warning sign” of potentially bigger safety issues with the bridge.

“The repair they were doing was really a Band-Aid,” said Astaneh-Asl, who criticized Caltrans at the time for rushing to reopen the bridge. “The Band-Aid broke, in essence.”

Astaneh-Asl said the failure of the repair job demonstrates the need for a longer-term solution. The bridge’s age and design make it susceptible to collapse, especially if commercial tractor-trailers are allowed to continue using it, he said.

“I think Caltrans is putting public relations ahead of public safety,” he said.

Alien-Wasp Swarms Devouring Birds, Bugs in Hawaii

090723-wasps-nests-hawaii_bigAttacking from nests as big as pickup-truck beds, invasive western yellowjacket wasps in Hawaii are munching their way through an “astonishing diversity” of creatures, from caterpillars to pheasants, a new study says.

Adult yellowjackets consume only nectar. But they kill or scavenge prey to deliver needed protein to their growing broods.

“They basically just carry it in their mandibles—you see them flying with their balls of meat,” said lead study author Erin Wilson, who just finished her Ph.D. at the University of California, San Diego.

In their native habitat in the western U.S., the wasps die off in winter. But in Hawaii the wasps survive the winter, possibly due to mild year-round temperatures or subtle genetic changes.

A longer life-span gives the insects more time to build up their nests. So what would normally be a basketball-size nest can become, at the extreme, several feet long—big enough to fill the back of a pickup truck, Wilson said.

The extra room allows a colony of 50,000 workers to explode to 500,000 or more. Larger colonies mean that the insects deplete more prey than in areas where the wasps die off in winter.

(Related: “Stinging Wasps Moving North Due to Warming?”)

Darwin’s Radio: Prehistoric Gene Reawakens to Battle HIV

6a00d8341bf7f753ef0115705b1a85970b-320wi ‘The next great war will start inside us. ‘In the next stage of evolution, mankind is history’.

Greg Bear, Darwin’s Radio

About 95% of the human genome has once been designated as “junk” DNA. While much of this sequence may be an evolutionary artifact that serves no present-day purpose, some junk DNA may function in ways that are not currently understood. The conservation of some junk DNA over many millions of years of evolution may imply an essential function that has been “turned off.” Now scientists say there’s a junk gene that fights HIV. And they’ve discovered how to turn it back on.

What these scientists have done could give us the first bulletproof HIV vaccine. They have re-awakened the human genome’s latent potential to make us all into HIV-resistant creatures, and hey’ve published their ground-breaking research  in PLoS Biology.

A group of scientists led by Nitya Venkataraman and Alexander Colewhether wanted to try a new approach to fighting HIV – one that worked with the body’s own immune system. They knew Old World monkeys had a built-in immunity to HIV: a protein called retrocyclin, which can prevent HIV from entering cell walls and starting an infection. So they began poring over the human genome, looking to see if humans had a latent gene that could manufacture retrocyclin too. It turned out that we did, but a “nonsense mutation” in the gene had turned it off at some point in our evolutionary history.

Nonsense mutations are caused when random DNA code shows up in the middle of a gene, preventing it from beginning the process of manufacturing proteins in the cell. Venkataraman and her team decided to investigate this gene further, doing a series of tests to see if the retrocyclin it produced would keep HIV out of human cells. It did.

Expect three more years of The Simpsons

Probably not a bad thing, though not as funny as family – Between the two Simpsons is probably safer for kids.

Animation domination will continue with The Simpsons anchoring the Fox toon programming for at least three more years. Al Jean, Simpsons’ exective producer, confirmed that since the actors are signed up till 2011, he’s pretty much banking on the fact that the award-winning comedy series will stay on the air.

Considering the fact that The Simpsons continues to be so successful — last year’s movie, for instance, grossed a staggering $526 million worldwide — and remains hilarious and relevant, Fox would be nuts to let the show go. And one of the best things about this family sitcom is that the characters never age. Bart and Lisa only age in the episodes that fantasize about the future.

UK police to wield mobile fingerprint scanners, facial recognition up next

….every police force in the UK will be equipped with mobile fingerprint scanners, which will allow the fuzz to carry out identity checks right on the street. Dubbed Project Midas, this here setup is supposed to “transform the speed of criminal investigations”while simultaneously freaking out anyone remotely concerned about personal privacy; in fairness, cops insist that fingerprints scanned via these portable devices will not be stored or added to databases, and we’re told that they’ll only be used ….