Biology and Biotech

Lost in all the talk about toxicity, endocrine disruption, and the like, is one fundamental property of chemicals, drugs, enzymes, and receptors, that people do not fully appreciate: Binding affinity— the tightness that ligands (chemicals, drugs) stick to their targets (enzymes, receptors).

Perhaps the best example of this property is carbon monoxide (CO). The reason that the colorless, odorless gas is so dangerous is that its binding affinity to hemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen in the blood throughout the body, is so strong (about 1,000-times that of oxygen) that it easily displaces oxygen from hemoglobin, which causes asphyxiation very quickly.  In other words, oxygen doesn't have a chance when CO is around.

(For a more detailed look at how this works, see:...

The proliferation of coffee shops and energy drinks bears testimony to the fact that caffeine is in high demand. The stimulant is even added to some medicine, like Excedrin Migraine. However, because only a handful of plants produce it, there has been some interest in creating caffeine synthetically. One approach would be to genetically engineer microbes capable of producing the molecule.

The trouble with this method is that caffeine is toxic to many microorganisms. (Caffeine is also a natural insecticide.) So, if microbes are to be used as tiny caffeine factories, they will first need to be made resistant to its noxious effects. A team of molecular biologists based mostly in China has accomplished just that using baker's yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae.


Vervet monkeys can be testy. Squabbling between social groups is common, particularly when food is at stake. Females of the species, which tend to remain in the same location and social group, have a much greater incentive to guard and fight over food sources than males, which change social groups several times in their lives. Therefore, when intergroup territorial conflict arises, males don't always feel obliged to participate.

Woe be unto the males who make this grave mistake. New research in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B reveals that males who choose to sit out during such scuffles may be subjected later to domestic abuse.

The team observed the interactions of four groups of vervet monkeys in South Africa. Conflicts, which lasted anywhere from a few...

Identifying Brain Trauma

A small, yet promising, brain trauma study may someday lead to a time when doctors can forecast which patients who incurred concussions or repeated blows to the head will be at risk for future neurological problems.

The new study, released this week, has the potential to advance scientists' knowledge of brain injuries and expand the scope of work currently being done to include preventative measures for treating psychiatric issues and onset dementia before they surface. Currently, confirmation of brain damage stemming from concussions, blows and the like, a condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, can only be diagnosed post-mortem.

For the study, which was conducted between 2015 and 2016, researchers at Johns Hopkins assembled two groups of men. The...

“Eat your bran even if it tastes horrible – its good for you!” Many of us remember this advice from decades ago. While fiber has been a good cure as a bulking agent for exciting disorders like constipation, it has a dull image and has faded into the background behind trendier (and more commercial) food messages like gluten, cholesterol, saturated fat and sugar. Often it can be the hardest item to find on the food label.

But fiber’s fortunes may now be on the turn. New research in the journal Cell sheds light on how fibre works to protect the gut.

An international team used special mice born and raised...

At this time of year, we look forward to feasting to celebrate the holidays. But, as Earth's population grows, feasts may become more scarce.Currently there are more than 7 billion people on the planet; according to some authorities, the increase in population between 1900 and 2000 was greater than that in all of human history. Although these same folks note that the rate of population growth has been slowing, we can still expect that by the year 2100, there will be over 11 billion people hanging around this planet. So, how are we going to feed them all? No, organic agriculture isn't going to do it. Genetic engineering will be needed to help increase food production. And scientists are working constantly to find new and...

Pheromones have long been credited (or blamed) for our behavioral choices, most notably our choice of sexual partners. The idea that we could base such a seemingly personal choice on a unconscious chemical signal is fascinating but, is it real? 

The answer is probably not - despite it being a widely held belief that humans make pheromones that affect our behavior - there is no scientific evidence to support that this is the case. But, it is still a question that garners much attention. In fact, Science magazine's special 125th anniversary issue, included the question “Do pheromones influence human behavior?” on the list of 100 of the most interesting questions still...

By Simon Woods, Newcastle University

A dying 14-year-old child recently won the right to be cryogenically frozen after her death following a UK court battle. In a letter to the judge, the child wrote:

I think being cryo-preserved gives me a chance to be cured and woken up, even in hundreds of years’ time. I don’t want to be buried underground … I want to live and live longer and I think that in the future they might find a cure for my cancer and wake me up.


We were recently contacted by a concerned group of pro-science scholars who wants to counter the unscientific arguments made by anti-GMO activist Vandana Shiva. We made this handy flyer for them. Then, we realized that this could be useful for anybody who needs to confront the anti-GMOers in their lives.

So, here it is. Feel free to print and distribute as widely as possible! 

Insect repellent, screens on windows, wearing long sleeves -- there is a limit to the precautions that we can take to protect ourselves from viruses that are spread by mosquitoes.

Even by taking all of the above steps, there is no way to have guaranteed protection from mosquito bites.

But, there is one idea that would put an end to all other methods of mosquito repellents.... what if there were no mosquitoes?

That is the idea behind the work of the company Oxitec. They have engineered a mosquito that leads to a decrease in the Aedes aegypti mosquito population. Here is how it works. The company has created a strain of mosquito that is "self limiting" meaning that they have a "death gene" added...