Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Designer Genes

Genetic engineering involves directly altering the genetic code of an organism, generally in some way that is beneficial to us.  For example, if you want to treat a patient with diabetes, you need insulin.  Instead of going out and tapping into the pancreas of a cow, you could culture bacteria to produce insulin for you.  The procedure is relatively straight-forward: take a blood sample from a person, search the DNA for the gene that codes for insulin production, snip out the gene, make some copies of it, and put it in a bacterium.  If the bacterial cell takes up the insulin gene, you’re set!  Now you’ve got a culture of bacteria producing human insulin for all your pharmaceutical needs.

Genetically engineered organisms are actually pretty common in modern science.  Bacteria can be made to produce medically important substances like insulin, growth hormones, or blood-clotting factors; a lot of the food you buy at the supermarket has been genetically engineered in some way; some companies use algae as a source of organic fuel; a few years ago, a group of researchers in Taiwan made glow-in-the-dark pigs; and last month, a couple of Harvard scientists engineered a human cell that fires a laser.

I’ll repeat that.  A human cell that fires a laser.

Saturday, July 9, 2011


Back in May, we saw the launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavor, the penultimate mission of NASA’s Space Shuttle Program.  Yesterday, the Space Shuttle Atlantis launched on its final mission, marking the end of the space shuttle program for good.

The shuttle program was started in 1972, and counting this last one, has launched a total of 135 missions, contributing quite a bit to the study and exploration of space.  Now that the program has come to an end, NASA no longer has the capability to send astronauts into space, and there’s no replacement program planned as of yet.  For now, the only way to get astronauts to the Space Station will be with the use of the Russian Soyuz program.

A Fossil Of A Different Color

Here at The Meniscus, it’s all about news in science.  Scientists are always conducting new research and new experiments, and every new experiment, if done right, leads to a new discovery, a new tidbit of knowledge to be added to the vast scientific knowledgebase, and it’s all pretty exciting.  But every now and then, science goes a step further and develops a new method of research.  A stroke of genius or an advance in technology can allow scientists to look at their subject in a way no one ever has before, and this opens the doors to a whole new realm of discoveries waiting to be made.

Every scientific discipline has its limitations.  In the field of paleontology, research is limited by the condition of fossil material.  When a prehistoric animal becomes fossilized, what typically happens is that the soft parts (hair, skin, etc.) are degraded away and the hard parts (bones, teeth, etc.) are preserved as fossils.  Now, bones and teeth are great; they allow paleontologists to interpret the diet, structure, and lifestyle of ancient animals.  But as you can imagine, not having access to the skin, blood, or internal organs of an animal really limits what you can figure out about its life.
There are, of course, exceptions.
The history of paleontology is littered with examples of new methodologies being developed and allowing researchers to look at fossils in completely new ways.  Back in the 80s, scientists began tackling the challenge of extracting genetic material from fossils, an idea that was almost unthinkable for a long time.  My undergraduate advisor once said (I’m paraphrasing here) “If you told me 30 years ago that you were gonna try to find DNA in fossil bones, I’d have said you’d had a few too many beers.”  And yet, today, scientists study ancient DNA all the time, learning more about prehistoric life than bones and teeth alone could ever have told us.  In fact, last year, an analysis of fossil DNA allowed researchers to identify an entirely new species of early man from just a tooth and a pinky bone.