Tag Archives: Biology

Updates from Georgia Tech

Brilliant Glow of Paint-On Semiconductors Comes from Ornate Quantum Physics
By Ben Brumfield – LED lights and monitors, and quality solar panels were born of a revolution in semiconductors that efficiently convert energy to light or vice versa. Now, next-generation semiconducting materials are on the horizon, and in a new study, researchers have uncovered eccentric physics behind their potential to transform lighting technology and photovoltaics yet again.

Comparing the quantum properties of these emerging so-called hybrid semiconductors with those of their established predecessors is about like comparing the Bolshoi Ballet to jumping jacks. Twirling troupes of quantum particles undulate through the emerging materials, creating, with ease, highly desirable optoelectronic (light-electronic) properties, according to a team of physical chemists led by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

These same properties are impractical to achieve in established semiconductors.

The particles moving through these new materials also engage the material itself in the quantum action, akin to dancers enticing the floor to dance with them. The researchers were able to measure patterns in the material caused by the dancing and relate them to the emerging material’s quantum properties and to energy introduced into the material.

These insights could help engineers work productively with the new class of semiconductors. more>

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Updates from Georgia Tech

New Cell Manufacturing Research Facility will Change Approaches to Disease Therapies
By John Toon – The vision of making affordable, high-quality cell-based therapies available to hundreds of thousands of patients worldwide moved closer to reality June 6 with the dedication of a new cell manufacturing research facility at Georgia Tech aimed at changing the way we think about medical therapies.

The new Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) like ISO 8 and ISO 7 compliant facility is part of the existing Marcus Center for Therapeutic Cell Characterization and Manufacturing (MC3M). The center was established in 2016 and made possible by a $15.75 million gift from philanthropist Bernie Marcus, with a $7.25 million investment from Georgia Tech and another $1 million from the Georgia Research Alliance.

MC3M is already helping researchers from Georgia Tech and partner organizations develop ways to provide therapeutic living cells of consistent quality in quantities large enough to meet the growing demands for the cutting-edge treatments. more>

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Updates from GE

Octopus And Squid Evolution Is Officially Weirder Than We Could Have Ever Imagined
By Signe Dean – They edit their own genes!

Just when we thought octopuses couldn’t be any weirder, it turns out that they and their cephalopod brethren evolve differently from nearly every other organism on the planet.

In a surprising twist, scientists have discovered that octopuses, along with some squid and cuttlefish species, routinely edit their RNA (ribonucleic acid) sequences to adapt to their environment.

This is weird because that’s really not how adaptations usually happen in multicellular animals. When an organism changes in some fundamental way, it typically starts with a genetic mutation – a change to the DNA.

Those genetic changes are then translated into action by DNA’s molecular sidekick, RNA. You can think of DNA instructions as a recipe, while RNA is the chef that orchestrates the cooking in the kitchen of each cell, producing necessary proteins that keep the whole organism going.

But RNA doesn’t just blindly execute instructions – occasionally it improvises with some of the ingredients, changing which proteins are produced in the cell in a rare process called RNA editing.

When such an edit happens, it can change how the proteins work, allowing the organism to fine-tune its genetic information without actually undergoing any genetic mutations. But most organisms don’t really bother with this method, as it’s messy and causes problems more often that solving them.

“The consensus among folks who study such things is Mother Nature gave RNA editing a try, found it wanting, and largely abandoned it,” Anna Vlasits reports for Wired.

But now it looks like cephalopods didn’t get the memo. more> https://goo.gl/A1TS6O

Endless fun

BOOK REVIEW

Consciousness and the Social Brain, Author: Michael Graziano.

By Michael Graziano – Imagine a future in which your mind never dies. When your body begins to fail, a machine scans your brain in enough detail to capture its unique wiring. A computer system uses that data to simulate your brain.

It won’t need to replicate every last detail. Like the phonograph, it will strip away the irrelevant physical structures, leaving only the essence of the patterns. And then there is a second you, with your memories, your emotions, your way of thinking and making decisions, translated onto computer hardware as easily as we copy a text file these days.

That second version of you could live in a simulated world and hardly know the difference. You could walk around a simulated city street, feel a cool breeze, eat at a café, talk to other simulated people, play games, watch movies, enjoy yourself. Pain and disease would be programmed out of existence.

Your connectome, simulated in a computer, would recreate your conscious mind. Of course, nobody knows if the connectome really does contain all the essential information about the mind. Some of it might be encoded in other ways. Hormones can diffuse through the brain. Signals can combine and interact through other means besides synaptic connections. more> https://goo.gl/7xUMFf

Your Microbes, Yourself

BOOK REVIEW

The Human Superorganism: How the Microbiome Is Revolutionizing the Pursuit of a Healthy Life, Author: Rodney Dietert.

By Louise Fabiani – In Dietert’s account, humanity is overly hung-up on competition as a concept, which we apply pretty much across the board.

In the health-care realm, this “us versus them” mentality regards “purging the microbes and creating a biologically pure human as the ideal outcome.”

A more holistic view would use cooperation instead: we scratch their backs, they scratch ours. While the microbes on and in us can certainly live up to their bad reputations as pathogens from time to time, their influence is predominantly neutral or benign. Those benefits are often more than nice perks too; they can be vital to well-being.

There are more than enough reasons to keep our microscopic buddies as happy as possible. The first step is learning how to adjust our thinking.

If our microbiome is incomplete or otherwise unhealthy, there are any number of ways it got like that. Dietert says that we aim for unnatural purity “in our modernized world of antibiotic-administered, formula-fed, cesarean-delivered babies growing up in urban environments, surrounded by hand sanitizers and antibacterial soaps.”

This quest for purity can leave us bereft of the life-enhancing (sometimes life-saving) “ecosystem services” granted, almost free of charge, by our little roommates. All they ever ask in return are food and lodging. more> https://goo.gl/22WPqu

Extinction is forever: de-extinction can’t save what we had

BOOK REVIEW

How to Clone a Mammoth, Author: Beth Shapiro.

By Brian Switek – A small but growing number of scientists say that they could reverse that loss through de-extinction – genetic resuscitation in the style of the sci-fi yarn Jurassic Park.

The idea is also now being marketed as conservation’s great hope to forestall the loss of biodiversity caused by humans. Biological Xeroxing was held up as one of the possibilities for species resuscitation at a National Geographic TEDx event on de-extinction in 2013. That same year, the discovery of a particularly juicy mammoth carcass, dripping with what appeared to be blood, sparked a flurry of reports assuring readers that the return of the mammoth is nigh.

For if there’s blood, there’s DNA, and if there’s DNA, then we can have the Ice Age beast back, right?

We’re in the age of conservation triage, when we are deciding daily what we want the future of nature to look like. more> https://goo.gl/LntcCD

Is the World Ready for Synthetic Life?

By Shelly Fan – At its core, synthetic biology is a marriage between engineering principles and biotechnology.

If DNA sequencing is about reading DNA, genetic engineering is about editing DNA, synthetic biology is about programming new DNA — regardless of its original source — to build new forms of life.

The field has a plug-and-play mentality, says Jay Kiesling, a pioneer of synthetic engineering at the University of California at Berkeley. “When your hard drive dies, you can go to the nearest computer store, buy a new one, swap it out,” he says, “Why shouldn’t we use biological parts in the same way?”

Similar to genetic engineering, synthetic biology gives scientists the power to tinker with natural DNA. The difference is mostly scale: genetic editing is a cut-and-paste process that adds foreign genes or changes the letters in existing genes. Often, only a few sites are changed.

Synthetic biology, on the other hand, creates genes from scratch. This allows scientists far more opportunities to make extensive changes to known genes, or even design their own. The possibilities are nearly endless. more> http://goo.gl/zHPFIi

Updates from Georgia Tech

Georgia Tech Research Finds Fan Communities Are Reshaping the Social Web for the Better
By Joshua Preston – Modern fan groups predate the Internet by more than half a century (think Star Trek conventions), and their shared interests include everything from science fiction to knitting. But replicating the connections fans make in person in a digital space has proved difficult.

Instead, groups with special interests are often forced onto Facebook and other social media with a one-size-fits-all approach to interacting online.

By adopting a user-centric approach to design, this community has created a rarity on the web, a “digital commons” without advertising where harassment is almost nonexistent, and a large installed audience enjoys a culture of genuine diversity.

The study, from Georgia Tech and University of Colorado-Boulder, is based on the website Archive of Our Own (AO3), an 840,000 member community of fan fiction or “fanfic” writers who post and share user-generated content. The site was launched in 2008 and boasts nearly 2 million story posts to date.

“AO3’s success demonstrates how beneficial it is to have a technology’s users as part of its development team,” said Casey Fiesler, lead researcher on the study while a Ph.D. candidate at Georgia Tech, and now assistant professor at University of Colorado-Boulder.

“What makes the rise of this online platform exceptional is that it was built primarily by its fans, some of whom started with little or no programming experience,” said Amy Bruckman, a professor of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech and author on the study. more> http://goo.gl/KHngV9

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The empty brain

BOOK REVIEW

In Our Own Image, Author: George Zarkadakis.
The Computer and the Brain, Author: John von Neumann.
How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed, Author: Ray Kurzweil.
Remembering, Author: Frederic Bartlett.
The Future of the Brain, Author: Steven Rose.

By Robert Epstein – Here is what we are not born with: information, data, rules, software, knowledge, lexicons, representations, algorithms, programs, models, memories, images, processors, subroutines, encoders, decoders, symbols, or buffers – design elements that allow digital computers to behave somewhat intelligently.

Not only are we not born with such things, we also don’t develop them – ever.

We don’t store words or the rules that tell us how to manipulate them. We don’t create representations of visual stimuli, store them in a short-term memory buffer, and then transfer the representation into a long-term memory device. We don’t retrieve information or images or words from memory registers. Computers do all of these things, but organisms do not.

Computers, quite literally, process information – numbers, letters, words, formulas, images. The information first has to be encoded into a format computers can use, which means patterns of ones and zeros (‘bits’) organized into small chunks (‘bytes’).

Computers really do operate on symbolic representations of the world. They really store and retrieve. They really process. They really have physical memories. They really are guided in everything they do, without exception, by algorithms.

Humans, on the other hand, do not – never did, never will.

Given this reality, why do so many scientists talk about our mental life as if we were computers? more> https://goo.gl/MkaP9H

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How to Survive Doomsday

By Michael Hahn & Daniel Wolf Savin – Let’s be optimistic and assume that we manage to avoid a self-inflicted nuclear holocaust, an extinction-sized asteroid, or deadly irradiation from a nearby supernova. That leaves about 6 billion years until the sun turns into a red giant, swelling to the orbit of Earth and melting our planet. Sounds like a lot of time.

But don’t get too relaxed. Doomsday is coming a lot sooner than that.

Eventually, though, the warming sun will cause CO2 levels to fall so low that plants will start to die. First to go will be the C3 plants, so called because their photosynthesis process involves a molecule containing three carbon atoms.

Most plants are of the C3 type, including wheat, rice, barley, oats, soybeans, peanuts, coconuts, bananas, potatoes, cotton, and most trees.

In about 200 million years, when the CO2 concentration drops below 150 parts per million (it is at 400 today), C3 plants will disappear. more> http://goo.gl/jgXilj