Biology and Biotech

Someday, everybody will be wearing smart clothes -- not just clothes that look dapper, but are able to sense the environment and the body's vital signs, perhaps then pinging the data to your wrist watch or doctor. To get there, we will need functional fabrics, and nothing beats the touch and feel of cotton1.

Natural cotton fibers, which are made of cellulose, must be chemically modified if they are to be engineered into smart fabrics. This could be done after the cotton has been harvested (like when clothing is dyed), but the drawback is that this sort of modification wears out. A better way would be to modify the cotton as it is being synthesized by the plant, so that the new properties are physically built into the cotton fibers. Now an international team of...

Ancient documents decay over time. Understanding the underlying cause of the deterioration is obviously necessary to prevent or reverse it.

Many ancient documents were created on parchment, which is derived from animal skin. Over time, parchments can be covered in purple spots, making the documents unreadable. (See upper left image.) For the past 40 years, scientists have tried to figure out what was responsible for the splotches, but little progress was made. But now, a team of mainly Italian researchers believes it has identified a potential cause.

The authors obtained a nearly 800-year-old, 5-meter-long parchment from the Vatican Secret Archives that details the story of a young soldier who accidentally killed a man and went into a self-imposed exile for 34 years. The...

In the late 90's, Michael J. Fox starred in a television comedy called Spin City. As its name implies, the job of Fox's character was to "spin" the truth to make his boss (the mayor of New York City) look good.

We've come to expect this sort of behavior from politicians and their sycophants on cable news, but we don't expect it from scientists. Yet, a new paper published in PLoS Biology suggests that some scientists do just that.

Sensationalizing Science

The biggest purveyors of sensationalism are university press offices and the scientifically ignorant dupes in the media who eagerly reprint press releases, sometimes nearly verbatim. Environmentalists and other activists have also perfected the art of spin.

But this paper...

Being tan has a slimming effect and makes people look and feel great.  Well, turning fat brown can actually make people thin.

We have long known that there are two types of fat – white and brown.  The white fat stores energy in the form of triglycerides whereas brown fat actually takes energy and turns it into heat.  It is present in abundance in infants (to keep them warm) and decreases in prevalence as we age.  Brown fat is richly supplied with capillaries and gets its color from the iron-laden mitochondria, providing oxygen and nutrients to surrounding tissues. 

Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center and University of North Carolina have developed a ...

Medicare and Medicaid cannot negotiate the cost of drugs – meaning they have to pay whatever a pharmaceutical company charges for their drugs.  This means that the potential for getting fleeced can be pretty high, including on the generic drugs which the public believes are cheaper. Some companies have been re-branding cheap medications that have been around for a while and then hiking up the price.  These sudden, sharp spikes in drug prices have led to a special Senate committee that deals with just this issue. 

Researchers from Oregon Health and Science University and School of Medicine analyzed one rather obscure drug, adrenocorticotropin, ACTH for short. The...

Unlike animals, bacteria can readily share genetic information with other bacteria, even those of entirely different species. Because of this, one clever microbiologist likened bacteria to smartphones and genes to apps. When bacteria share "apps" that encode antibiotic resistance, it poses trouble for humanity.

As individual bacterial strains are exposed to antibiotics, natural selection favors the survival of those that have mutated to become resistant. That hard-earned resistance can then be given to other bacteria. Microbiologists have long known of three major mechanisms by which this occurs: Transformation, transduction, and conjugation.

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A couple of years ago we applauded Uganda for adopting the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill which will allow farmers to grow genetically engineered crops (GMOs), as a means of improving the quality of foods. In particular use of this modern technology could prevent a deadly fungus from wiping out the most widely sold type of banana, the Cavendish, as we explained here. And, genetically-engineered bananas could also help wipe out vitamin A deficency in Uganda, as described in a recent post from...

People with red hair tend to have a greater health risk from sun exposure, and for developing skin cancer. But now researchers at Boston University report that they've found a way to potentially reduce that risk by altering a protein involved with pigmentation in humans.

Scientists at BU's School of Medicine learned that this protein, called Melanocortin 1 Receptor, or MC1R, "is affected by a special modification process called palmitoylation," according to a BU news release, and that by "enhancing palmitoylation in the variant MC1R proteins of redheads cancer risk can be reduced."

The findings of the study, titled "Palmitoylation-dependent activation of MC1R prevents melanomagenesis,"...

Heparin is a mucopolysaccharide, which is a long chain sugar molecule, is found in mucous and fluid surrounding the joints. Heparin was first discovered in 1918 and has been used as an anticoagulant for the treatment of venous thromboembolism or VTE (blood clots in the veins of lower extremities and the lung) since the 1930s.  It is estimated that the annual incidence of VTE is about one in 1000 adults, making anticoagulants one of the most important classes of prescribed drugs. 

Research has revealed that heparin has a...

In the United States, we are largely sheltered from some diseases which have a great disease burden globally. Tuberculosis (TB) is one such disease, accounting for nine million newly diagnosed cases and two million deaths annually. TB is second to Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) as the top causes of death from an infectious disease according to the World Health Organization (WHO) and it is not uncommon for people with HIV to be co-infected with TB.

Even in this day and age, there is still a problem with delays in obtaining a timely clinical diagnosis. With a disease like TB, time is of the essence....