Wednesday, August 31, 2016

That Time we Beat Nature

We are really messing with mother nature on this one.  We are taking one of the central biological functions in nature, one that was a mystery up until modern science, and we have made it mechanical.  Not only have we been successful in duplicating it, we have found a way to use it to our own advantage, as a sort of assembly line for resources we can use.

That's pretty wild.

What is this secret of nature that we have successfully modernized and manipulated, you ask?  Well, as an article in Scientific American describes, scientists at Harvard have created artificial photosynthesis.  This process begins with a solar panel that collects sunlight and uses that energy to breakdown water molecules.  Microbes then take the hydrogen from this reaction and carbon dioxide from the air to produce alcohols, mainly isopropanol and isobnutanol.  Artificial photosynthesis has been accomplished before, but what sets this attempt apart from those of the past is its efficiency, as the title of the article states, this process is ten times more efficient than natural photosynthesis, and the fact that the new alloy being used isn't poisoning the microbes, like in previous attempts.

One thing that confused me about this article was how these alcohols were being created.  From what we learned in sophomore biology, alcohol is created in cells through the process of fermentation, something that is only a secondary response, a sort of back up plan for the cell.  It occurs when there is not enough oxygen present to perform cell respiration, the cells main way of transforming the sugar produced by photosynthesis into usable energy.  In this system, however, there should have been plenty of oxygen present, as the process that creates the hydrogen needed to power the microbes also produces oxygen, oxygen that is not being used.  I would be very interested in finding out how they circumvented the cell's natural function in order to prompt the fermentation process, because that must have been a challenge, at least in the early phases of the concept.

Another thing that caught my attention in this article was the practical application they describe.  The primary application mentioned in the article was the use of the produced alcohol as fuel for people without funds or access to more common fuel sources.  This struck me as odd, because I have never heard of the mentioned alcohols being used as fuel before.   Even after some light googling the only trace I found of either of the alcohols in relation to fuel was use as a fuel additive, something to boost efficiency, but not as power itself.  Maybe I missed something, as I didn't dig that deep into the internet, but some searching into the structure of the alcohols, and of gasoline showed that both consisted of the same elements (carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen) and both featured hydrocarbon bonds.  This similarity in structure suggests that perhaps they could serve similar functions.  Maybe I found no mention of alcohol being used as a fuel because for some reason, it hasn't happened before. Perhaps there was no efficient way of truly mass producing it until now. If this is the case, the prospect, whether plausible or not, of being able to provide alternative types of fuel or new production methods is truly noteworthy, as our limited resources on earth dwindle, and fuel prices grow.  If this method can be widely used, and the product function effectively, it could change the way we power our world.

Friday, August 19, 2016

How To Save A Life

This article discussed how the (relatively) new technology of CRISPR gene editing is soon to be used as an experimental treatment for lung cancer patients.  This is a huge step forward in genetics, and while some accuse China of moving too fast, this method seems to show a lot of promise, or at least a lot of people seem to think it does.  The little section of this article that popped out to me was the fact that they admit that it is possible for the modified cells to strike out against things other than the tumor they are created to oppose. 

The gene that is being removed in this trial is the gene that codes for protein PD-1, a protein that limits auto immune responses.  By removing this gene, this protein will cease to be created, and therefore will allow the cells to strike out against the tumor without hindrance, at least, that's the idea.  What stuck out to me was the fact that it is also possible that these modified cells stride out against other parts of the body, parts that could be very harmful to a person, especially an already ill one.

They even acknowledge this possibility in the article, however the scientists behind the study cite previously done trials that similarly block the PD-1 protein, saying that they, "did not see a high rate of autoimmune response." What really stands out to me here is how this potential danger is seen, known, acknowledged, and then justified.  How have these scientists determined that the possible benefits outweigh the possible harmful effects?  While they do state that the trial will start of with small amounts and then slowly increase with close monitoring, this is a big risk to be taking, especially as the true effects are really quite unknown.  This is delving more into the ethics of thing than the actual science, however I found it appalling that a justification made by a small group of people could jeopardize lives if their judgements are wrong.

On the other side of this, if their evidence that "a high rate of autoimmune response was not seen" is true, could it not be possible that the same limited response would be taken on the tumor? What if their "safety" is a factor that makes the treatment not very effective?  In this case then the scientists would be potentially risking the safety of the subjects for a very small result.  This article really made me think about how being a scientist is about so much more than science, especially in the power of judgement we rely on them to have.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Summer Fun With Skin Bumps

The article I found most interesting was the article that discussed the skin bump formation on reptiles and mammals.  What initially stood out to me was how the true solution to the posed conflict of shared gene ancestry versus evolved trait was much more simple than the other explanations that had been suggested previous to the discovery.  In science more often than not the solution to a question is much more complicated than wanted or expected.  I have seen that myself in experiments and science fair projects, and it is what can make science so frustrating or hard to understand.  This discovery is the opposite, as it is proves the simplest explanation was the true one.

Beyond this differentiation from the norm of science being generally confusing, I chose this article because genetics was my favorite part of bio class.  I saw that this article talked about not only genetics now, but how genes have evolved or not evolved over thousands and thousands of years, and was pretty darn interested.   While I was reading the article (and frantically wracking my brain trying to dredge up some bio smarts I could've sworn were in there somewhere) the only word that was coming to mind was "epigenetics," and after a quick google search I remembered that it was a change in the expression of a gene based on external factors, instead of a change in the gene itself.  This got me thinking that perhaps the reason that the skin bumps on reptiles don't form past embryonic phase was because the external environment didn't require it to.  I'm not entirely sure how accurate or possible that is, or if I am actually just thinking about evolution.  I don't think so though, as my interpretation of evolution is that it changes the genes, where in this case the gene and the protein it codes for are still the same in the species of mammals and the embryonic reptiles, despite how different their skin becomes after the early phase.  Either way, this article is mind blowing as it shows how far we have developed, something we know, but a tend not to really think about.

None of this is to say that the fact that both mammals and reptiles show the same gene makes all of our evolutionary questions magically answered.  Having the same gene and the same or similar expression of the gene does, however, show that at some point we must have been similar life forms, which is a truly wild idea to consider.  While this is so, it doesn't tell us what those forms were, or when we branched off to become our own separate species, which, luckily for us little fledgeling scientists, leaves a lot more science to do before that one gets figured out.