Biology and Biotech

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Let's say that you are studying cystic fibrosis (CF), an inherited disease, and you want to work on the genetic basis of the disease. In order to do that, you need to do an experiment with the gene that is responsible for causing CF. For many diseases (think autism spectrum disorder) this is incredibly challenging because there are many genes responsible for the disease. In contrast, with CF, there is one gene, the 'cystic fibrosis transmembrane receptor,' (CFTR) that, when mutated, causes CF. Different CF patients can have different mutations, but, what they all have in common is that the CFTR is somehow not working to its full potential, which is what causes the disease. 

To start your work, you need to get DNA from people who have CF - that's easy enough to do with a cheek...

Airport bathroom

International travel is not always a pleasant experience. Cramped airplanes with crying babies, ridiculous and arbitrary regulations, long lines, and overpriced food contribute to the general grumpiness and anxiety that many travelers feel. Despite this, a German scientist hunting for data on antimicrobial resistance patterns decided to push his research team just a little bit further. 

The conversation probably went something like this:

RESEARCHER: I'm leaving on holiday soon.
BOSS: Lovely. Where are you going?
RESEARCHER: Brazil.
BOSS: Excellent choice. Where are you stopping?
RESEARCHER: I've got layovers in Munich and London.
BOSS: Perfect. Say, while you're out there, would you mind swabbing a few bathroom door handles for me?*
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Dr. Yoshinori Ohsumi is a Nobel Laureate after my own heart.

Earlier this week, it was announced that Dr. Ohsumi was the sole winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discoveries on the mechanism of autophagy. Our own Dr. Alex Berezow provided a thorough explanation of the process at the heart of the award winning work.

But, what caught my attention was not the work that Dr. Ohsumi did in the past, rather, his vision for the future. Not one to waste time, in an interview just the day after the announcement, he highlighted two critically important topics that he will focus on for the rest of his career—building a new...

I must break from my tradition of writing articles in the 3rd person to relate an important story that affects me personally.

I first learned about GMOs as a sophomore microbiology major in college. (They weren't called GMOs then; they were simply referred to as "transgenic crops.") I remember feeling exhilarated -- the sort of thrill that only accountants or geeky academics can usually understand -- at how basic knowledge of DNA sequences was leading to a huge technological revolution. The opportunities were limitless. 

Years later I entered journalism. And I saw breathtaking ignorance and vitriol aimed at scientists like me coming from supposedly educated people. Never in a million years would I have anticipated that our passion for science would be used as a...

Hybrid antibiotic created with a molecular "rope"

Due to increasing antibiotic resistance, microbiologists are on the lookout for unconventional ways to kill bacteria. Atypical methods range from phage therapy, in which bacteria-killing viruses are unleashed upon the microbes, to the use of "bed-of-nails" surfaces that physically rip bacteria apart.

Such out-of-the-box thinking was displayed yet again by a team of scientists from the University of Manitoba who created a hybrid antibiotic by tying together two...

Early on October 3, 2016, the world-famous committee in Stockholm announced that Japanese scientist Yoshinori Ohsumi had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering autophagy. So, what is it?

Autophagy is a type of programmed cell death. Some of the cells in multicellular organisms, like animals and plants, choose to self-destruct for the greater benefit of the organism. This can occur for a variety of reasons. If a cell outlives its usefulness, is nutrient deprived, or becomes infected, the cell considers suicide a viable option.

There are several different ways in which a cell can die. Two...

If you, like most others, are under the impression that Watson and Crick discovered DNA, you have plenty of company, but you all happen to be wrong.

Watson and Crick's 1953 paper, where they solved the structure of DNA, earned them fame and fortune - more than most Nobel Prize winners. While knowing the structure of such an important biomolecule was an historic accomplishment, they were able to solve it only because of the impressive body of work that preceded them. That said, this discovery is no different than any other breakthrough in science. 

The discovery of DNA took place over the course of 100 years, during which time at least a dozen different scientists played key roles. Here are some of the discoveries that enabled Watson and Crick to...

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With antibiotic resistance a growing threat, scientists are on the hunt for new ways to treat bacterial infections. One of these, called phage therapy, uses a special kind of virus that only infects and kills bacteria. (These viruses are called "bacteriophage" or simply "phage.")

The original idea for this therapy is actually quite old. It was pioneered by Félix d'Herelle in the 1920s (and is still used in Eastern Europe today) but it fell mostly out of favor with the advent of antibiotics like penicillin. However, with antibiotics becoming less effective today, scientists are increasingly turning to unconventional treatments.

Acinetobacter baumanii, often referred to as "Iraqibacter", gained notoriety in recent years due to its causing wound infections in...

Smarter than the average orangutan

Though reality TV would seem to challenge the notion, highly social creatures tend to be more intelligent than non-social creatures. The reason is because it takes brain power to communicate and thrive in a society. A successful wolf, for instance, must be bright enough to pick up on behavioral cues from the alpha male and to understand his place in the social hierarchy.

Cognitive scientists believe that social learning -- i.e., learning behaviors from others -- enhances an animal's ability to learn new things by itself. In other words, social intelligence helps promote individual intelligence. This idea, called the cultural intelligence hypothesis, also has a corollary: Social species should have evolved to be better at problem-solving than related, non-social species. 

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The international protest "March Against Monsanto" (MAM) was never based on truth. The movement perpetuated myths about GMOs to demonize a company that has a really bad PR department. But now that Bayer is buying out Monsanto, what is MAM to do? These angry activists must channel their rage somewhere. So, March Against Monsanto has decided to become hard-core anti-vaccine.

With over 1.2 million followers, the influential group's Facebook page is dangerously unhinged from reality, featuring posts promoting everything from anti-vaxxer propaganda to historical conspiracy theories. See this post, for example:

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