Target Health Inc. met J. Craig Venter at a PopTech conference last October 2006, and before that at a Bio-IT-World conference. He is brilliant, highly competitive and woe to the person who either precedes or follows him, in a line of speakers. Venter follows the beat of a very different drummer. Craig Venter is a world class scientist and we raise our glass to him and to all the other maverick, great contributors to the fund of human knowledge.


Tissue Engineering: Making Blind Rats See

Adviser Q&A
Josh Wolfe, Forbes/Wolfe
Nanotech Report 04.24.07

When I first met the brilliant yet commercially pragmatic Shuguang Zhang, his work centered primarily on tissue engineering and energy. But days before this interview was going to print, he co-authored groundbreaking work on restoring vision in rats that were made blind from brain damage. The work, which uses self-assembling peptides to coax neurons to grow, might one day be critical for patients suffering from stroke or spinal cord injuries.

Zhang is now associate director of MIT’s Center for Biomedical Engineering. He received his Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Postdoctoral work at MIT led to a position as a research scientist, and ultimately his current position. His early work at MIT led to the discovery of a self-assembling peptide system; such systems are the basis of Zhang’s research into plant-powered solar cells. His tissue re-engineering research is becoming commercialized at privately held 3DM, which is up against a number of others making strides in this field, such as Acorda Therapeutics, Baxter International, Sanofi-Aventis and Johnson & Johnson.

Forbes: Why are you so interested in developing an alternative source of energy?

Zhang: Because energy is so important for civilization. Oil supplies are running out, and we have not found an alternative except nuclear energy. Wind and hydropower are small potatoes. The other alternative is solar energy, which is nearly untapped. That has to be changed.

Solar energy is inexhaustible, and we must learn how to harvest it. I wrote a piece that said that if water is the matrix of life, and without water, life as we know it would not exist. Energy is the matrix of our civilization. Without energy, civilization as we know it would collapse. People cannot go backwards–once you have a car, you won’t walk a hundred miles a day. Once you have a mobile phone, you can’t live without it, and all of this requires energy.

The U.S. has not paid enough attention to this. There’s a Chinese proverb that you cannot go hunting when you’re hungry–you have to do it before you’re hungry. We cannot wait for the oil to run out.

How are you working on harvesting solar energy?

Plants and bacteria have been doing it for billions of years, and we’re learning from them. They have the most efficient machines for harvesting light from individual photons. Plants use the energy for growth, but we want to take the photons and convert them into electrons to produce electricity–for your phone, your car, your home. We’re taking the photosynthetic systems from plants to collect the photons, and then combining that with metal wires as a carrier to generate electricity. It’s very simple.
You first published research on this in 2004. How have the devices advanced since then?

In 2004 it was a new, breakthrough concept to combine the photosynthetic machinery, inorganic wire and a semiconductor material to harvest photons and convert them to electrons. We were only able to collect some of the electricity, and only did one monolayer of material, so there was a small surface area.

We realized afterward that if we could increase the surface area we could gather much more energy. One square mile of Manhattan has much more surface area than one square mile of a field in Wyoming, because you have the sides of all the buildings. So our first step was engineering to increase the surface area, and that paper will be published in a few months.

Also, in the 2004 work, we could only produce nanoamps of electricity, which is essentially useless. Now we have produced 100 microamps, so we only need to increase the current output by 10 to 100 times and we’re in business–that’s the range for watches, calculators, pacemakers and more.

What’s the biggest challenge you face?

Long-term research support, from both government and industry. We wrote a grant proposal for the Department of Energy, which we thought would be very interested in our research. We only asked for $500,000 over three years, but we were turned down. We were told there was no additional money available for 2005, so no additional research funding could be provided. That seems very shortsighted. Also, most U.S. companies have little interest, but Japanese and European companies are very interested.

How long do you think it will take to commercialize the technology?

It’s a function of time and money. If nobody supports it and we do it on our own, it will take a long time–up to 20 or 50 years, or we may never finish. But if somebody has a vision and puts effort into it–like the Apollo program–it will go much faster if we have essential resources and manpower.

Stepping away from energy, is there anything new going on at 3DM?

3DM is focused on biological applications of self-assembling peptides, things like tissue repair, tissue engineering and medical technologies. We have a paper coming out in a few months on a new peptide nanofiber scaffold to repair nerves. We cut an animal’s optical nerve–the eye is intact but the animal can no longer see, like cutting phone cord but the phone itself is fine. When we put in this nanofiber scaffold, cells migrate along the scaffold to repair the nerve, and the animal’s vision returns in a few days.

Is there a person whose research you particularly admire?

J. Craig Venter. He’s a maverick. He accelerated sequencing the human genome, later moved on to sequence other genomes, and now he’s doing the soil genome. He’s finding hundreds and thousands of different bacteria in the soil, looking at the whole ecology system. It’s much more complex than the human genome.

He’s also done sequencing of ocean systems around the globe. He’s putting in a huge amount of effort to understand the science of the planet Earth and biodiversity. Doing that kind of work will help us understand everything from evolution to how cells interact with each other. His work is good not only for basic science but also humanity.

Professor Tutis Vilis of University of Western Ontario, Canada has posted his lectures online using Flash. This particular animation teaches muscle sense.

Click here to see this in full size.

Link to his lectures.

From New York Times

Bees Vanish, and Scientists Race for Reasons
By Alexie Barrionuevo
The New York Times

Tuesday 24 April 2007

Beltsville, Maryland – What is happening to the bees?

More than a quarter of the country’s 2.4 million bee colonies have been lost – tens of billions of bees, according to an estimate from the Apiary Inspectors of America, a national group that tracks beekeeping. So far, no one can say what is causing the bees to become disoriented and fail to return to their hives.

As with any great mystery, a number of theories have been posed, and many seem to researchers to be more science fiction than science. People have blamed genetically modified crops, cellular phone towers and high-voltage transmission lines for the disappearances. Or was it a secret plot by Russia or Osama bin Laden to bring down American agriculture? Or, as some blogs have asserted, the rapture of the bees, in which God recalled them to heaven? Researchers have heard it all.

The volume of theories “is totally mind-boggling,” said Diana Cox-Foster, an entomologist at Pennsylvania State University. With Jeffrey S. Pettis, an entomologist from the United States Department of Agriculture, Dr. Cox-Foster is leading a team of researchers who are trying to find answers to explain “colony collapse disorder,” the name given for the disappearing bee syndrome.

“Clearly there is an urgency to solve this,” Dr. Cox-Foster said. “We are trying to move as quickly as we can.”

Dr. Cox-Foster and fellow scientists who are here at a two-day meeting to discuss early findings and future plans with government officials have been focusing on the most likely suspects: a virus, a fungus or a pesticide.

About 60 researchers from North America sifted the possibilities at the meeting today. Some expressed concern about the speed at which adult bees are disappearing from their hives; some colonies have collapsed in as little as two days. Others noted that countries in Europe, as well as Guatemala and parts of Brazil, are also struggling for answers.

“There are losses around the world that may or not be linked,” Dr. Pettis said.

The investigation is now entering a critical phase. The researchers have collected samples in several states and have begun doing bee autopsies and genetic analysis.

So far, known enemies of the bee world, like the varroa mite, on their own at least, do not appear to be responsible for the unusually high losses.

Genetic testing at Columbia University has revealed the presence of multiple micro-organisms in bees from hives or colonies that are in decline, suggesting that something is weakening their immune system. The researchers have found some fungi in the affected bees that are found in humans whose immune systems have been suppressed by the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome or cancer.

“That is extremely unusual,” Dr. Cox-Foster said.

Meanwhile, samples were sent to an Agriculture Department laboratory in North Carolina this month to screen for 117 chemicals. Particular suspicion falls on a pesticide that France banned out of concern that it may have been decimating bee colonies. Concern has also mounted among public officials.

“There are so many of our crops that require pollinators,” said Representative Dennis Cardoza, a California Democrat whose district includes that state’s central agricultural valley, and who presided last month at a Congressional hearing on the bee issue. “We need an urgent call to arms to try to ascertain what is really going on here with the bees, and bring as much science as we possibly can to bear on the problem.”

So far, colony collapse disorder has been found in 27 states, according to Bee Alert Technology Inc., a company monitoring the problem. A recent survey of 13 states by the Apiary Inspectors of America showed that 26 percent of beekeepers had lost half of their bee colonies between September and March.

Honeybees are arguably the insects that are most important to the human food chain. They are the principal pollinators of hundreds of fruits, vegetables, flowers and nuts. The number of bee colonies has been declining since the 1940s, even as the crops that rely on them, such as California almonds, have grown. In October, at about the time that beekeepers were experiencing huge bee losses, a study by the National Academy of Sciences questioned whether American agriculture was relying too heavily on one type of pollinator, the honeybee.

Bee colonies have been under stress in recent years as more beekeepers have resorted to crisscrossing the country with 18-wheel trucks full of bees in search of pollination work. These bees may suffer from a diet that includes artificial supplements, concoctions akin to energy drinks and power bars. In several states, suburban sprawl has limited the bees’ natural forage areas.

So far, the researchers have discounted the possibility that poor diet alone could be responsible for the widespread losses. They have also set aside for now the possibility that the cause could be bees feeding from a commonly used genetically modified crop, Bt corn, because the symptoms typically associated with toxins, such as blood poisoning, are not showing up in the affected bees. But researchers emphasized today that feeding supplements produced from genetically modified crops, such as high-fructose corn syrup, need to be studied.

The scientists say that definitive answers for the colony collapses could be months away. But recent advances in biology and genetic sequencing are speeding the search.

Computers can decipher information from DNA and match pieces of genetic code with particular organisms. Luckily, a project to sequence some 11,000 genes of the honeybee was completed late last year at Baylor University, giving scientists a huge head start on identifying any unknown pathogens in the bee tissue.

“Otherwise, we would be looking for the needle in the haystack,” Dr. Cox-Foster said.

Large bee losses are not unheard of. They have been reported at several points in the past century. But researchers think they are dealing with something new – or at least with something previously unidentified.

“There could be a number of factors that are weakening the bees or speeding up things that shorten their lives,” said Dr. W. Steve Sheppard, a professor of entomology at Washington State University. “The answer may already be with us.”

Scientists first learned of the bee disappearances in November, when David Hackenberg, a Pennsylvania beekeeper, told Dr. Cox-Foster that more than 50 percent of his bee colonies had collapsed in Florida, where he had taken them for the winter.

Dr. Cox-Foster, a 20-year veteran of studying bees, soon teamed with Dennis vanEngelsdorp, the Pennsylvania apiary inspector, to look into the losses.

In December, she approached W. Ian Lipkin, director of the Greene Infectious Disease Laboratory at Columbia University, about doing genetic sequencing of tissue from bees in the colonies that experienced losses. The laboratory uses a recently developed technique for reading and amplifying short sequences of DNA that has revolutionized the science. Dr. Lipkin, who typically works on human diseases, agreed to do the analysis, despite not knowing who would ultimately pay for it. His laboratory is known for its work in finding the West Nile disease in the United States.

Dr. Cox-Foster ultimately sent samples of bee tissue to researchers at Columbia, to the Agriculture Department laboratory in Maryland, and to Gene Robinson, an entomologist at the University of Illinois. Fortuitously, she had frozen bee samples from healthy colonies dating to 2004 to use for comparison.

After receiving the first bee samples from Dr. Cox-Foster on March 6, Dr. Lipkin’s team amplified the genetic material and started sequencing to separate virus, fungus and parasite DNA from bee DNA.

“This is like C.S.I. for agriculture,” Dr. Lipkin said. “It is painstaking, gumshoe detective work.”

Dr. Lipkin sent his first set of results to Dr. Cox-Foster, showing that several unknown micro-organisms were present in the bees from collapsing colonies. Meanwhile, Mr. vanEngelsdorp and researchers at the Agriculture Department lab here began an autopsy of bees from collapsing colonies in California, Florida, Georgia and Pennsylvania to search for any known bee pathogens.

At the University of Illinois, using knowledge gained from the sequencing of the bee genome, Dr. Robinson’s team will try to find which genes in the collapsing colonies are particularly active, perhaps indicating stress from exposure to a toxin or pathogen.

The national research team also quietly began a parallel study in January, financed in part by the National Honey Board, to further determine if something pathogenic could be causing colonies to collapse.

Mr. Hackenberg, the beekeeper, agreed to take his empty bee boxes and other equipment to Food Technology Service, a company in Mulberry, Fla., that uses gamma rays to kill bacteria on medical equipment and some fruits. In early results, the irradiated bee boxes seem to have shown a return to health for colonies repopulated with Australian bees.

“This supports the idea that there is a pathogen there,” Dr. Cox-Foster said. “It would be hard to explain the irradiation getting rid of a chemical.”

Still, some environmental substances remain suspicious.

Chris Mullin, a Pennsylvania State University professor and insect toxicologist, recently sent a set of samples to a federal laboratory in Raleigh, N.C., that will screen for 117 chemicals. Of greatest interest are the “systemic” chemicals that are able to pass through a plant’s circulatory system and move to the new leaves or the flowers, where they would come in contact with bees.

One such group of compounds is called neonicotinoids, commonly used pesticides that are used to treat corn and other seeds against pests. One of the neonicotinoids, imidacloprid, is commonly used in Europe and the United States to treat seeds, to protect residential foundations against termites and to help keep golf courses and home lawns green.

In the late 1990s, French beekeepers reported large losses of their bees and complained about the use of imidacloprid, sold under the brand name Gaucho. The chemical, while not killing the bees outright, was causing them to be disoriented and stay away from their hives, leading them to die of exposure to the cold, French researchers later found. The beekeepers labeled the syndrome “mad bee disease.”

The French government banned the pesticide in 1999 for use on sunflowers, and later for corn, despite protests by the German chemical giant Bayer, which has said its internal research showed the pesticide was not toxic to bees. Subsequent studies by independent French researchers have disagreed with Bayer. Alison Chalmers, an eco-toxicologist for Bayer CropScience, said at the meeting today that bee colonies had not recovered in France as beekeepers had expected. “These chemicals are not being used anymore,” she said of imidacloprid, “so they certainly were not the only cause.”

Among the pesticides being tested in the American bee investigation, the neonicotinoids group “is the number-one suspect,” Dr. Mullin said. He hoped results of the toxicology screening will be ready within a month.

Magnets & Medicine

All animals, including humans, have small magnetite 1) ___ in their brains. Scientists believe that animals may navigate or migrate, by sensing the pull of the crystals towards the earth’s magnetic poles. Our earth is one big magnet, with liquid 2) ___ deep within the earth, creating convection currents, which in turn create the magnetic force. Without the magnetic force field, too much energy would reach us from the 3) ___ and would wipe out our atmosphere. All man-made 4) ___ is made from magnets. When a magnet is spun inside a coil of wire, 5) ___ start to flow from the wire. Medical applications for magnets either: simply employ the attractive/repulsive forces between magnets, utilize the forces between magnets/electromagnets in devices or utilize the effect of magnetic field on biological systems. As permanent magnet materials have developed, attempts have been made to take advantage of their improved properties in medical applications. Uses of magnets in medical applications range from simple use for retention, through orthopedics and fracture healing, to magnetomotive artificial hearts and pioneering brain surgery, to where magnets are used to guide catheters. Magnets also find use in applications such as 6) ___ ___ ___ scanners and drug delivery systems. Recent experiments with animals, show that soon humans may have less invasive 7) ___ surgery, utilizing magnets to build magnetic positioning systems capable of supporting surgical instruments, tissue retractors, and cameras. As we perfect the use of surgical magnets, and magnetism in medicine, we may find sophisticated magnetic methods to solve the challenge of 8 ) ___ in outer space, as well as general health in space.

According to a New York Times video,

Heart disease kills more Americans than any other disease, partially because treatments known to make a difference are often ignored.

Click here to view video.

According to a small study from Landau University in Germany, cell phone might be the blame for all the disappearance of honey bees as On Target reported earlier. writes:

The cell phone study, conducted by Landau’s Jochen Kuhn, was originally presented at a German Informatics and Cybernetics conference back in 2003. It focused on the effects of cell phone radiation on the neurological mechanisms that control learning and memory. Placing handsets near hives, Kuhn observed that GSM cell phone radiation in the frequency range 900 MHz – 1800 MHz caused the bees to avoid the hive. Kuhn speculates that the “waggle” dance that bees perform on the honeycomb to communicate with others could be influenced by the radiation.

Link to the article

New Nanoparticle Detects Clogged Arteries

HDLs or 1) ___ ___ ___, are called good cholesterol because they penetrate artery-clogging plaque and carry away some of the bad cholesterol. Researchers at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York City have designed a nanoparticle, modeled on HDL particles, to improve the detection of such arterial 2) ___. Like HDLs, the new contrast agent enters fatty deposits on vessel walls. Under magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the new 3) ___ shines brightly and highlights cholesterol buildups in partially blocked arteries. Current MRI contrast agents have no affinity for the 4) ___ plaque. The new plaque-seeking agent was created by binding atoms of 5) ___, an excellent MRI contrast agent – to a shortened, synthetic analog of the HDL protein. The researchers canceled gadolinium’s normal 6) ___ by attaching other molecules to the metal. In tests on seven mice, the new agent improved the detection of arterial plaques by almost 80%, compared with MRI using a conventional contrast agent. Within a few weeks, the agent will be tested in rabbits. If the synthetic HDL works as well in people, the new contrast agent will improve physicians’ ability to track the effectiveness of plaque-busting treatments. American Chemical Society 233rd National Meeting & Exposition – Chicago – April 2007

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