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Dr Alexandra BowyerWhen we heard about the world’s first synthetic lifeform, we realized we needed a science expert to help us explore and share the real significance of the news. So we’re very pleased to introduce our first guest blogger, Alexandra Ruaux (wife of regular contributor Alexander Bowyer). Alexandra has a PhD in Biochemistry from the University of Southampton, UK and is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Biotechnology Research Institute in Montréal, where she spends most of her days growing and isolating bacterial proteins to determine their molecular structure. She has published several journal papers and contributed structures to the Protein Data Bank.

 


Synthia is the first living organism on the planet to have a computer for a parent. From just four bottles of chemicals (the basic components of DNA; Adenine, Cytosine, Guanine and Thymine) Dr. Craig Venter and his research group at the J. Craig Venter Institute synthesised the entire genome of a bacterial cell. They used a known genetic code as a recipe and transplanted it into a different cell, effectively causing it to ‘change’ species. What does this mean for mankind? Are we about to have the magic of life reduced to just 4 chemicals? Will terrorists be able to synthesise terrible bio-weapons? Can we now design cells that do whatever we want?
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An interview with James Burke

When I was very young, a TV series called Connections changed my life. It was an ADHD-filled ride through history and science, showing us how everything we took for granted stood on the shoulders of giants.

I just found this interview with the author and narrator of that series, James Burke, conducted by Gartner. It’s a great read; if anything, Burke has underestimated the pace of change.

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Look out Snow Crash and Strange Days: a British researcher says he’s the first person to become infected with a computer virus.

It’s just a proof of concept, but Dr. Marc Gasson of the University of Reading showed that he could infect an implanted chip (used to open doors and activate his phone) and have that virus passed on to other devices.

While the example seems trivial, it does offer some tantalizingly threatening possibilities: what if I infect your pacemaker, then use that to extort money from you in order to keep it working?

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Video

You may have heard of Big Dog, the four-legged robot developed by Boston Dynamics to carry equipment into battle, an electronic “pack mule” that can navigate a wide range of terrain.

But you might not have seen Little Dog, a Chihuahua to Big Dog’s Great Dane. Here’s a look at how far miniaturization and computing power have come in recent years.

Nice footsoldiers, Skynet.

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Building the synthetic cell

The BBC reports that researchers, including Craig Ventner of the Human Genome Project, announced that they’ve managed to synthesize a cell’s DNA. This is the “opposite” of mapping DNA: using a genome that’s been mapped, create working DNA and put it in a cell.

According to Ventner, “the new bacteria replicated over a billion times, producing copies that contained and were controlled by the constructed, synthetic DNA.” It’s a big breakthrough — the first step towards custom-engineering life — that could have some dire consequences if not properly regulated.

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i09 says that researchers have demonstrated true nanobot-scale manufacturing. This isn’t just building something really small: this is building something small that builds something. It’s a nanofactory. As we’re now learning, things that work at really small scales are subject to different laws–those of quantum physics–that may give them access to other sources of energy.

This research may one day give us efficient ways of building anything (an idea touched on Neal Stephenson’s book The Diamond Age.) This all sounds promising. Except… Read more »

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The Ethics of Designer Babies

Commercial DNA service, by aprilzosia on Flickr

This episode of BBC World’s Discovery podcast looks at the science which is already allowing parents to choose those embryoes least likely to develop diseases later in life. At first these techniques seem like powerful tools to put in the hands of would-be parents, but since any genetic assessment can only give probability, not certainty, it has the potential to create agonizing choices. And the programme also looks at India, where pale skin is becoming increasingly desirable, especially for girls, and asks if legislation should stop parents from rejecting embryoes for aesthetic rather than medical reasons.

Listen to the episode (streaming audio hosted by the BBC)

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SpaceShipOne in flight

The X-Prize Foundation is a non-profit charity which catalyzed the creation of a private space travel industry. Virgin Galactic recently completed its maiden voyage and will be taking passengers to space using technology first created for SpaceShipOne, winner of the Ansari X-Prize in 2004.

The Foundation has announced, in line with their mission is to bring about “radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity”, $100 million of prizes over the next 10 years, in four key areas – Energy & Environment, Education & Global Development, Exploration and Life Sciences.

The Life Sciences category is of particular interest as it specifically mentions Human 2.0 devices, brain computer-interfaces, bionics, artificial intelligence physicians and telemedecine. If the prize gives the same boost to innovation and scientific development in this field that it has for space travel, we can be sure of some exciting progress in the next few years.


Image credit: sdawara on Flickr.

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Does Big Search change science?

Matthew Ingram at the Globe and Mail takes Wired to task over a recent article that implies Big Search will save the world and change the way we solve problems. I think Matthew’s right, and that the way we can now mine vast amounts of data isn’t a substitute for science — merely an accelerant.

I think this for two reasons. First, Google can’t solve the problems with machines; and second, correlation is not causality.

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