09 July 2011

Biosingularity Revolution Pushes Against Economic Collapse

Image via NextBigFuture

A revolution in regenerative medicine, genetic recombineering, synthetic biology, systems biology, and several other points of the biosingularity are pushing ahead despite three years of global economic downturn and counting, since the fall of 2008.

Brian Wang introduces us to the "accelerated evolution machine," pictured above.
Say hello to the evolution machine. It can achieve in days what takes genetic engineers years. So far it is just a prototype, but if its proponents are to be believed, future versions could revolutionise biology, allowing us to evolve new organisms or rewrite whole genomes with ease. It might even transform humanity itself.

...Because biological systems are so complex, it is a huge advantage to be able to tweak lots of genes simultaneously, rather than one at a time, she says. "In almost every case you'll get a different solution that's a better solution."

...By automating selection and using a few tricks, though, it should be practical to screen for far more subtle characteristics. For instance, biosensors that light up when a particular substance is produced could be built into the starting strain. "The power going forward will have to do with clever selections and screens," says Church.

As revolutionary as this approach is, Church thinks MAGE's most far-reaching potential lies elsewhere. He reckons it will be possible to use the evolution machine to make many thousands of specific changes to a cell's DNA: essentially, to rewrite genomes.

At the moment, making extensive changes to even the smallest genome is extremely costly and laborious. Last year, the biologist and entrepreneur Craig Venter announced that his team had replaced a bacterium's genome with a custom-written one (Science, vol 329, p 52). His team synthesised small pieces of DNA with a specific sequence, and then joined them together to create an entire genome. It was an awesome achievement, but it took 400 person-years of labour and cost around $40 million.

MAGE can do the same job far more cheaply and efficiently by rewriting existing genomes, Church thinks. The idea is that instead of putting DNA strands into the machine with a range of different mutations, you add only DNA with the specific changes you want. Even if you are trying to change hundreds or thousands of genes at once, after a few cycles in the machine, a good proportion of the cells should have all the desired changes. This can be checked by sequencing.

...As the technology improves and becomes routine, says Church, it could also be used to alter the cells used for cell-based therapies. Tissue-engineered livers grown from stem cells, say, could have their genetic code altered so that they would be immune to liver-destroying viruses such as hepatitis C. _NewScientist_via_NBF

The "evolution machine" has its work cut out for it, but it may very well speed up some projects which do not depend upon significant transformations of the genome. More sizeable genomic transforms are not likely to be possible using such a simplist approach. But future generations of such machines are likely to grow sophisticated enough to make the work of future Craig Venters much faster and simpler.
Researchers at the LA Children's Hospital built a fully functioning artificial small intestine in mice.

A man from Eritrea was recently given an artificial trachea transplant in Sweden. The trachea was grown on a scaffold inside a bioreactor.

Scientists have isolated the human blood cell progenitor stem cell, which is capable of growing all the various cellular components of the blood system.

Johns Hopkins researchers have identified a "super neural precursor stem cell" which can not only differentiate into specialised brain cells, but can also reproduce itself!

A partial list of companies involved in regenerative medicine research and development

The US has been the world's driver of scientific and biomedical R&D for several decades now. There has been some question as to how long American research could maintain its drive, if the nation's economy was dragged down by dysfunctional governmental economic and regulatory policies. Yet, despite the current US government's apparent war against the private sector, some areas of private R&D are still thriving -- although not as well as prior to the fall of 2008.

It is vital that private sector financing be central to advanced R&D, to prevent the type of politicisation of science which has frozen climatology in an infantile state of biased activism (via GWPF), rather than dispassionate observation and honest hypothesis testing.
Federal domination of science funding has two quite intended consequences: both individual scientists and major universities have become wards of Washington. For decades, academic sociologists have noted that almost all faculty party affiliations are with the Democrats. This is no conspiracy–it is merely like-minded individuals hiring other like minds and voting their best interest. _Forbes

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