For years, researchers have been using fluorescent proteins in bacteria and animals to study everything from gene therapy and neural development to cancer and limb regeneration (and create some very pretty pictures). The concept is fairly simple: by inserting the gene for GFP (green fluorescent protein, originally found in jellyfish) at the end of another gene—say the gene for hemoglobin—its glow can be used to measure how much hemoglobin is produced and where it is produced in the cell.
Inspired by the success of GFP as a research tool (it earned its discoverers the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2008), scientists have adopted a similar approach to identify and locate transplanted stem cells in animal models. Except in their case, they’ve begun to use the gene for luciferase, the enzyme responsible for the mesmerizing glow of the firefly. And if this method works, it could make stem cells a potent tool for addressing heart disease.
I have seen the future, and it is cilia. Yes, you read that right: those trillions of tiny hair-like extensions that carpet every inch of your body could bring scientists’ visions of a universal class of “smart” materials that change and adapt when subjected to various stimuli closer to reality. These artificial cilia could one day do everything from testing drugs and monitoring air quality to measuring glucose levels and detecting electromagnetic fields.
While largely ignored over the past century (or, at best, dismissed as being purely vestigial), scientists are finally beginning to appreciate the many vital functions they perform in and outside of our bodies. Much like an antenna or sensor, cilia gather information from their surroundings and react—by activating a cellular process or shutting down cell growth, for example—if something seems amiss. They can also act as miniature roads or railways, carrying dirt, bacteria and other noxious materials out of our lungs or shuttling a fertilized egg from the ovary to the uterus. And, perhaps most importantly, cilia make it possible for us to see, hear, smell, and otherwise feel the outside world.
Now some researchers believe that cilia-like structures could bring their sensory prowess to medicine, environmental monitoring and a number of other fields. Leading the charge is Marek Urban of the University of Southern Mississippi who has created a copolymer film with hair-like filaments that mimics the functions of normal cilia. Read More
If the oceans eventually become too acidified to sustain most marine life and the jellyfish take over, we can at least take solace in the fact that we’ll have an abundant source of renewable energy. GFP (Green Fluorescent Protein), the same protein isolated in Aequorea victoria that earned three researchers the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2008, has found a new lease of life in solar and fuel cells being developed by Zackary Chiragwandi at the Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden. Much like the dye found in cutting-edge dye-sensitized solar cells, GFP absorbs a specific wavelength of sunlight—in this case, ultraviolet light—to excite electrons that are shuttled off to an aluminum electrode to generate a current. After giving up their energy, the electrons are then returned to the GFP molecules, where they are ready for another round of stimulation (so to speak).
The cell’s design is simple: two aluminum electrodes are placed onto a thin layer of silicon dioxide, which helps to optimize light capture and energy conversion efficiency, and a single drop of GFP is deposited between them. Without prodding, the protein then self-assembles into strands to connect the electrodes and form a tiny circuit. While cheaper than conventional solar cells, dye-sensitized cells still require some costly materials and are hard to build, making these bio-inspired cells potentially a much more alluring proposition down the line. And because slightly different versions of GFP are found in a number of other marine species, there is the potential for an entire array of more finely tuned GFP cells. Read More
Researchers’ new-found interest in frogs may only be skin-deep, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Because hidden within their rugose (science-ese for “wrinkled”) flesh may lie a bumper crop of powerful antibiotics. Though hardly a secret among researchers, who’ve been singing their praises as a potential treasure trove for new drugs for years, efforts to systematically catalog—or even investigate—the thousands of amphibians that could yield promising new antimicrobial substances have been few and far between.
In a few years’ time, recharging your handheld PC may be as easy as just slipping it into your back pocket. That is, as long as you don’t mind having a virus cocktail woven into your pair of slacks. Yes, the humble virus–that tiny protein-coated bag of genetic material that we more commonly associate with global pandemics–could replace graphite and lithium iron phosphate as the material of choice with which to build the next generation of customizable, high-powered, lithium-ion batteries.
Despite what you may think, this isn’t actually such an unusual pairing. By virtue of their simple design (most only contain enough genes to encode a few dozen proteins) and infinite capacity for manipulation, viruses have become the favored go-to tool for scientists seeking to explore cellular systems and tinker with their underlying components. Gene therapists have been infecting bacterial, plant, and animal cells with viruses for years in order to shuttle in new genes and repair malfunctioning ones. In one recent application, a team of researchers led by University of Pennsylvania ophthalmologist Arthur Cideciyan restored sight to two blind individuals by injecting a virus equipped with a retinal gene into their eyes. Read More