Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Weekly BioNews 7 - 14 Apr 2008

- Money doesn't grow on trees, but gasoline might

April 7, 2008 10:41 PM

Researchers have made a breakthrough in the development of "green gasoline," a liquid identical to standard gasoline yet created from sustainable biomass sources like switchgrass and poplar trees.

Reporting in the cover article of the April 7, 2008 issue of Chemistry & Sustainability, Energy & Materials (ChemSusChem), chemical engineer and National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER awardee George Huber of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst (UMass) and his graduate students Torren Carlson and Tushar Vispute announced the first direct conversion of plant cellulose into gasoline components.

In the same issue, James Dumesic and colleagues from the University of Wisconsin-Madison announce an integrated process for creating chemical components of jet fuel using a green gasoline approach. While Dumesic's group had previously demonstrated the production of jet-fuel components using separate steps, their current work shows that the steps can be integrated and run sequentially, without complex separation and purification processes between reactors......

- Cow stomach holds key to turning corn into biofuel
April 8, 2008 09:11 PM

An enzyme from a microbe that lives inside a cow’s stomach is the key to turning corn plants into fuel, according to Michigan State University scientists.

The enzyme that allows a cow to digest grasses and other plant fibers can be used to turn other plant fibers into simple sugars. These simple sugars can be used to produce ethanol to power cars and trucks.

MSU scientists have discovered a way to grow corn plants that contain this enzyme. They have inserted a gene from a bacterium that lives in a cow’s stomach into a corn plant. Now, the sugars locked up in the plant’s leaves and stalk can be converted into usable sugar without expensive synthetic chemicals.

“The fact that we can take a gene that makes an enzyme in the stomach of a cow and put it into a plant cell means that we can convert what was junk before into biofuel,” said Mariam Sticklen, MSU professor of crop and soil science. She is presenting at the 235th national American Chemical Society meeting in New Orleans today. The work also is presented in the “Plant Genetic Engineering for Biofuel Production: Towards Affordable Cellulosic Ethanol” in the June edition of Nature Review Genetics....
- Fungus fight: Researchers battle against dangerous corn toxin
April 9, 2008 01:11 PM

The spiraling use of corn for food and fuel is creating heightened concerns about contamination of this staple crop with deadly aflatoxin. Produced by certain fungi that grow on corn, this contaminant is a known human carcinogen that especially threatens food safety in the developing world and can potentially cause the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in the United States each year.

Bruce Hammond, Ph.D., a lead researcher at Monsanto’s Product Safety Center, says that aflatoxin is a potent liver carcinogen and source of other health concerns in humans and animals. Tightly regulated by the FDA, Hammond said threatening levels of the contaminant are kept out of the food supply in the United States. But in Africa and the developing world, poor regulation has made aflatoxin a significant food safety issue.

At the 235th national meeting of the American Chemical Society in New Orleans, Hammond and others presented advances towards the production of corn less susceptible to aflatoxin contamination. The new varieties could contribute to the reduction of the worldwide threat of the deadly toxin, improve food quality in developing countries and increase corn yield for food and in the United States....

- Scientists develop strategy to rapidly describe outbreak strains with next-generation DNA sequencing

April 10, 2008 11:20 PM

In the event of an outbreak or a bioterrorist attack, rapid identification of the genetic changes responsible for virulence or drug resistance is essential to mounting an effective response. Standard DNA sequencing and analysis of a pathogen genome is time-intensive and likely impractical during an emergency. Researchers have now developed a comparative genomics strategy to drastically reduce the time needed to accurately identify unique genetic properties of a potential outbreak strain. This report, which demonstrates the approach using next-generation sequencing technology, is published online today in Genome Research.

Sanger DNA sequencing, the established technology used to sequence the genomes of many species, including the genomes of humans and hundreds of bacteria, could potentially be used to sequence and analyze a new human pathogen. However, the time required for sequencing and subsequent analysis, or “finishing,” is such that this approach is not feasible when a rapid response to an outbreak or bioterrorist attack is required. New sequencing technologies are now available, allowing an entire bacterial genome to be sequenced in several hours, but time-intensive finishing steps are still required to determine the complete genome sequence.

In this study, researchers led by Drs. Bernard La Scola and Didier Raoult of the University of the Mediterranean set out to determine whether a rapidly sequenced incomplete genome could be used to quickly characterize an outbreak strain by comparative analysis. “In the context of an outbreak, a quick approach may help to identify immediately the genetic determinants responsible for modified virulence or transmission, explains La Scola. “The aim of this work was to evaluate the recently available automated pyrosequencing technology without finishing for this purpose.”....

- Researchers pilot new electronic system for infectious illness

April 11, 2008 10:20 AM

Researchers at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, Harvard Medical School, Atrius Health, and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health have created and tested a set of computer programs that use electronic medical records to help clinicians detect contagious illness and automatically report them to public health departments.

The new system, called Electronic Medical Record Support for Public Health, or ESP, was described in the April 11 issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a publication of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The pilot version of ESP was installed in January 2007 at Atrius Health, a multi-specialty physician group with 30 practice sites in Eastern Massachusetts. Atrius Health is an alliance of five medical groups serving approximately 600,000 patients at outpatient clinical sites and hospitals.

“This is a good example of the way clinicians can provide better support for public health activities that benefit everyone,” says Richard Platt, senior author for this study and chairman of the Harvard Medical School Department of Ambulatory Care and Prevention at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care. “It is especially noteworthy that this system also reduces the amount of work required of busy practitioners.”

Typically, clinicians report diseases by filling out paper forms and mailing or faxing them to health authorities. This time-consuming work has historically led to delays in disease reporting and even failure to report some cases altogether. The new system will save time by automatically scanning electronic medical records to identify cases and electronically report them to the health department on clinicians’ behalf. The system will also benefit health officials by providing more complete, timely, and accurate disease reports.

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