i found this feed a few days ago – Science Daily – and it has really been making my days a lot easier. i could read things like this 24 hours a day, and need very little else.
Blue-eyed Humans Have A Single, Common Ancestor
Jan. 31, 2008
New research shows that people with blue eyes have a single, common ancestor. A team at the University of Copenhagen have tracked down a genetic mutation which took place 6-10,000 years ago and is the cause of the eye colour of all blue-eyed humans alive on the planet today.
What is the genetic mutation
“Originally, we all had brown eyes”, said Professor Eiberg from the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine. “But a genetic mutation affecting the OCA2 gene in our chromosomes resulted in the creation of a “switch”, which literally “turned off” the ability to produce brown eyes”. The OCA2 gene codes for the so-called P protein, which is involved in the production of melanin, the pigment that gives colour to our hair, eyes and skin. The “switch”, which is located in the gene adjacent to OCA2 does not, however, turn off the gene entirely, but rather limits its action to reducing the production of melanin in the iris – effectively “diluting” brown eyes to blue. The switch’s effect on OCA2 is very specific therefore. If the OCA2 gene had been completely destroyed or turned off, human beings would be without melanin in their hair, eyes or skin colour – a condition known as albinism.
Limited genetic variation
Variation in the colour of the eyes from brown to green can all be explained by the amount of melanin in the iris, but blue-eyed individuals only have a small degree of variation in the amount of melanin in their eyes. “From this we can conclude that all blue-eyed individuals are linked to the same ancestor,” says Professor Eiberg. “They have all inherited the same switch at exactly the same spot in their DNA.” Brown-eyed individuals, by contrast, have considerable individual variation in the area of their DNA that controls melanin production.
Professor Eiberg and his team examined mitochondrial DNA and compared the eye colour of blue-eyed individuals in countries as diverse as Jordan, Denmark and Turkey. His findings are the latest in a decade of genetic research, which began in 1996, when Professor Eiberg first implicated the OCA2 gene as being responsible for eye colour.
Nature shuffles our genes
The mutation of brown eyes to blue represents neither a positive nor a negative mutation. It is one of several mutations such as hair colour, baldness, freckles and beauty spots, which neither increases nor reduces a human’s chance of survival. As Professor Eiberg says, “it simply shows that nature is constantly shuffling the human genome, creating a genetic cocktail of human chromosomes and trying out different changes as it does so.”
E. Coli Bacteria: A Future Source Of Energy?
Jan. 31, 2008
For most people, the name “E. coli” is synonymous with food poisoning and product recalls, but a professor in Texas A&M University’s chemical engineering department envisions the bacteria as a future source of energy, helping to power our cars, homes and more.
By genetically modifying the bacteria, Thomas Wood, a professor in the Artie McFerrin Department of Chemical Engineering, has “tweaked” a strain of E. coli so that it produces substantial amounts of hydrogen. Specifically, Wood’s strain produces 140 times more hydrogen than is created in a naturally occurring process, according to an article in “Microbial Biotechnology,” detailing his research.
Though Wood acknowledges that there is still much work to be done before his research translates into any kind of commercial application, his initial success could prove to be a significant stepping stone on the path to the hydrogen-based economy that many believe is in this country’s future.
Renewable, clean and efficient, hydrogen is the key ingredient in fuel-cell technology, which has the potential to power everything from portable electronics to automobiles and even entire power plants. Today, most of the hydrogen produced globally is created by a process known as “cracking water” through which hydrogen is separated from the oxygen. But the process is expensive and requires vast amounts of energy — one of the chief reasons why the technology has yet to catch on.
Wood’s work with E. coli could change that.
While the public may be used to hearing about the very specific strain that can cause food poisoning in humans, most strains are common and harmless, even helping their hosts by preventing other harmful bacteria from taking root in the human intestinal tract.
And the use of E. coli in science is nothing new, having been used in the production of human insulin and in the development of vaccines.
But as a potential energy source?
That’s new territory, and it’s being pioneered by Wood and his colleagues.
By selectively deleting six specific genes in E. coli’s DNA, Wood has basically transformed the bacterium into a mini hydrogen-producing factory that’s powered by sugar. Scientifically speaking, Wood has enhanced the bacteria’s naturally occurring glucose-conversion process on a massive scale.
“These bacteria have 5,000 genes that enable them to survive environmental changes,” Wood explained. “When we knock things out, the bacteria become less competitive. We haven’t given them an ability to do something. They don’t gain anything here; they lose. The bacteria that we’re making are less competitive and less harmful because of what’s been removed.”
With sugar as its main power source, this strain of E. coli can now take advantage of existing and ever-expanding scientific processes aimed at producing sugar from certain crops, such as corn, Wood said.
“A lot of people are working on converting something that you grow into some kind of sugar,” Wood explained. “We want to take that sugar and make it into hydrogen. We’re going to get sugar from some crop somewhere. We’re going to get some form of sugar-like molecule and use the bacteria to convert that into hydrogen.”
Biological methods such as this (E. coli produce hydrogen through a fermentative process) are likely to reduce energy costs since these processes don’t require extensive heating or electricity,” Wood said.
“One of the most difficult things about chemical engineering is how you get the product,” Wood explained. “In this case, it’s very easy because the hydrogen is a gas, and it just bubbles out of the solution. You just catch the gas as it comes out of the glass. That’s it. You have pure hydrogen.”
There also are other benefits.
As might be expected, the cost of building an entirely new pipeline to transport hydrogen is a significant deterrent in the utilization of hydrogen-based fuel cell technology. In addition, there is also increased risk when transporting hydrogen.
The solution, Wood believes, is converting hydrogen on site.
“The main thing we think is you can transport things like sugar, and if you spill the sugar there is not a huge catastrophe,” Wood said. “The idea is to make the hydrogen where you need it.”
Of course, all of this is down the road. Right now, Wood remains busy in the lab, working on refining a process that’s already hinted at its incredible potential. The goal, he said, is to continue to get more out of less.
“Take your house, for example,” Wood said. “The size of the reactor that we’d need today if we implemented this technology would be less than the size of a 250-gallon fuel tank found in the typical east-coast home. I’m not finished with this yet, but at this point if we implemented the technology right now, you or a machine would have to shovel in about the weight of a man every day so that the reactor could provide enough hydrogen to take care of the average American home for a 24-hour period.
“We’re trying to make bacteria so it’s doesn’t require 80 kilograms; it will be closer to 8 kilograms.”