News in a nutshell
Venter admits misquoting Feynman in synthetic DNA; in vitro Parkinson's; immune modulator for melanoma wins US approval
This week's news includes an admission by genomic pioneer Craig Venter that he and his team mangled a famous quote by physicist Richard Feynman when encoding it as a watermark in the DNA of the first ever synthetic organism, the report of a Parkinson's research breakthrough, an announcement that the FDA has approved a novel melanoma drug, details of an artificial leaf that may power our homes in the future, and the genetic mutation that Elizabeth Taylor used to her advantage.
Venter misquotes Feynman in DNA
Image: Wikipedia, PLoS
It turns out that Craig Venter needs to brush up on his Richard Feynman history. When Venter and his team successfully linkurl:constructed;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/57443/ the first ever cell controlled by a synthetic genome last year, they cleverly placed some playful watermarks in the genetic code to prove that the bacterial cell really was running the inserted, synthetic DNA. Using an alphabetic code based on DNA's four nitrogenous bases -- A, T, C, and G -- the team encoded the names of the collaborators, some HTML code, an email address, and famous quotes, including one from famed quantum physicist Feynman.
The Feynman quote that the researchers coded into the synthetic DNA read, "What I cannot build, I cannot understand." But that isn't quite right. The quote, which Feynman famously scrawled on a Caltech chalkboard just before his death in 1988, really read, "What I cannot create, I do not understand." After getting grief from all angles, including a note from Caltech with a linkurl:photo;http://onionesquereality.files.wordpress.com/2008/12/feynman_blackboard5.jpg of Feynman's chalkboard bearing the quote, Venter recently linkurl:announced;http://blogs.forbes.com/davidewalt/2011/03/14/craig-venters-genetic-typo/ at a presentation during this month's annual South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, that his team will now go back into the synthetic cell's genome and correct the quote.
Parkinson's in a dish
One of the frustrating realities of Parkinson's disease research is that scientists have not been able to observe closely how brain cells are killed by the neurodegenerative disorder -- until now. Stanford University researchers published a __Cell Stem Cell__ linkurl:paper;http://www.cell.com/cell-stem-cell/abstract/S1934-5909%2811%2900014-2 earlier this month reporting that they've successfully recreated the neuronal damage wrought by Parkinson's in a Petri dish. The feat was made possible by inducing pluripotent stem cells to differentiate into dopaminergic neurons that carried the most common Parkinson's-related mutation. When exposed to stressor, such as hydrogen peroxide, the mutant neurons were more likely to die than control neurons.
An interesting side note: the stem cells that were used to generate the mutant neurons were initially harvested from the skin of Google co-founder Sergey Brin's mother, Genia, according to the linkurl:__Silicon Valley Mercury News__.;http://www.mercurynews.com/science/ci_17702124?nclick_check=1 "I'm impressed, almost proud," Brin, told the __Mercury News__. "I was hoping they would learn something from it, and they did."
New melanoma drug gets FDA approval
Last week, the US Food and Drug Administration announced a new drug that treats advanced melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer. The drug, ipilimumab, was developed by Bristol-Myers Squibb, and represents a new approach to combating cancer -- immune modulation. But the drug is by no means a panacea for advanced melanoma sufferers: it only lengthened the life spans of 20-30 percent of patients in clinical trials, and nearly 13 percent experienced severe side effects. "We clearly have to do much better than that," MD Anderson Cancer Center oncologist Patrick Hwu, who helped conduct some of the early research on the drug, told linkurl:__Nature__.;http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110328/full/471561a.html But some of the patients who participated in an early ipilimumab trial 5 years ago are still alive today, a triumph considering the fact that many melanoma patients succumb to the cancer less than a year after being diagnosed. (For more about the latest science on melanoma read an upcoming linkurl:feature article;http://www.the-scientist.com/2011/4/1/32/1/ in The Scientist
's April issue.)
Artificial leaf perfected?
In the future, our home energy needs could be met by tiny artificial leaves that mimic natural photosynthesis, generating energy that could be used to power fuel cells, according to Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemist Daniel Nocera. Nocera, speaking this week at the National Meeting of the American Chemical Society in California, claims to have made such a device out of stable and inexpensive materials, such as electronic components, silica, and chemical catalysts. According to linkurl:__Wired__,;http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/03/artificial-leaf/ Nocera's leaf can carry out photosynthesis as much as 10 times more efficiently than a natural leaf, with a single unit capable of producing enough electricity to power a house for a whole day. "Our goal is to make each home its own power station," Nocera told Wired. Apparently, the MIT professor has inked a deal with Indian conglomerate Tata Group to build a refrigerator-sized power plant using the devices within the next year and a half.
The mutation behind Liz Taylor's captivating stare
Screen siren Elizabeth Taylor captivated a generation of movie goers with her entrancing gaze. The recently deceased actress may have been classically trained and naturally beautiful, but chalk at least one aspect of her magnetic look up to genetics. Taylor carried a mutation in a critical developmental gene, called __Forkhead box protein C2__ (__FOXC2__), which can result in lymphedema-distichiasis syndrome. In addition to improper lymphatic system function, the disease can also cause distichiasis, or the growth of extra eyelashes. Apparently, Taylor, who died last week from congestive heart failure, had an extra row of lashes, top and bottom, framing her famously mesmerizing eyes. It's unclear whether or not lymphedema-distichiasis syndrome contributed to Taylor's death, but a small percentage of patients with the disorder do experience congestive heart disease. (Thanks to linkurl:__Slate__;http://www.slate.com/blogs/blogs/browbeat/archive/2011/03/25/elizabeth-taylor-beautiful-mutant.aspx for bringing this to our attention.)
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[25th November 2009]