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First Synthetic, Self-Replicating Cell Created

Dr. J. Craig Venter and other research scientists have created the first live cell to house an entirely synthetic, man-made and self-replicating genome. Synthetic cells like these could eventually be of use in the biofuel industry, where cells could be specially made to trap carbon dioxide and convert it into biofuel.

“This is the first synthetic cell that’s been made, and we call it synthetic because the cell is totally derived from a synthetic chromosome, made with four bottles of chemicals on a chemical synthesizer, starting with information in a computer,” states Venter. Essentially, this cell’s daddy was a computer.

The cell was assembled in steps. First, the genome needed to be constructed outside of the cell. Short strands of DNA were injected into a yeast cell, which combined the DNA strands and glued them together, eventually creating a full genome. The synthetic genome was injected into the bacteria Mycoplasma capricolum, and started producing proteins. Eventually, the bacteria’s original genome was either destroyed or replaced, and the synthetic genome took over the cell replication process (see neat, uber-sciency chart here).

This biological breakthrough comes with its share of controversy. Some researchers are claiming that the term “synthetic cell” is misleading, since Venter and team didn’t so much create new life, but just modified already existing life. President Obama and co. have also expressed concern about the report, claiming that it raised “genuine concerns” within the administration. Obama has asked the White House bioethics commission to start researching concerns over synthetic biology and get back to him in 6 months with its findings. The concerns range from safety and security of introducing synthetic DNA and genomes into a living system, and the non-physical; should mankind be “creating life?”

Source: Science Daily

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Bonobos Shake Heads to Say “No” Like Humans Do

Nodding or shaking our heads to indicate displeasure may seem like a perfectly normal, perfectly involuntary habit, but until now, it was a habit only seen in human species. After sitting through 190 hours of video documenting the ins and outs of the lives of bonobos, apes which are closely related to the common chimpanzee, , researchers have found what they have dubbed the “primitive precursor of the human head shake.”

The scene plays out like so: The bonobo mother, Ulindi, is not pleased with her daughter, Luiza’s fascination with a piece of leek. She takes the leek away from Luiza, who tries to wrestle it back from her mother’s hands. Ulindi then starts to shake her head, as if to indicate “No, you cannot have this back,” and, possibly, “You keep grabbing for this leek, there’s going to be time-out for you, young lady.”

Though chimps have also been documented shaking their heads, it’s rare that it’s used with negative connotations. Bonobos are the most likely primate to mimic human behavior, as they “differ from other apes in social-problem-solving strategies because their emotional temperament affords cooperative behavior.”

Source: National Geographic

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BP Will Switch Oil Spill Dispersants and Bring in Kevin Costner to Help

We’ve already talked about the controversy surrounding the dispersants that BP has been using to counteract the oil spill, but here’s a quick summary: Dispersants are used to “break up” spilled oil into smaller droplets that can eventually evaporate or be carried off in the current. Corexit was the specific type of dispersant that BP had been using, but there was some worry as to whether it was just replacing one problem with another. Corexit had some questionable ingredients and warnings, and previous site tests had shown that it was just as, if not more, harmful to the surrounding coastlines as the oil was.

More than 650,000 gallons of Corexit has been dumped into the ocean, and though BP originally had the Environmental Protection Agency’s approval to use the dispersant, the agency has now changed its mind:

“While the dispersant BP has been using is on the Agency’s approved list, BP is using the dispersant in unprecedented volumes and, last week, began using it underwater at the source of the leak – a procedure that has never been tried before. Because of its use in unprecedented volumes and because much is unknown about the underwater use of dispersants, EPA wants to ensure BP is using the least toxic product authorized by use.”

The dispersant BP will be switching to is Dispersit, a decidedly less toxic and safer alternative to Corexit, although its concerns about “unprecedented volumes” and “underwater use” will likely still apply, considering Dispersit has not been used in either of those conditions.

BP is also bringing in someone else to help with the spill: Kevin Costner. The Waterworld savior is also an avid environmentalist, and after the Exxon Valdez spill he began development on a machine system that is meant to clean up oil spills.

“The machines are essentially like big vacuum cleaners,” explains Costner’s business partner, John Houghtaling. ” [They] sit on barges and suck up oily water and spin it around at high speed. On one side, it spits out pure oil, which can be recovered. The other side spits out 99% pure water.”

Testing of these devices will occur next week, and hopefully it will be the solution BP’s been looking for.

Source: Discover Magazine

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Turtle Breathes Through Tongue

We’re used to only tasting things with our tongues, but the common musk turtle does something else with it: It breathes.

Zoologist Ergon Heiss and colleagues made this amazing discovery while studying the feeding habits of the common musk turtle. Adults spend most of their lives submerged under water, while babies typically head onto land to forage. While watching the babies forage for food, scientists found something quite peculiar: The baby turtle would harness its food and then drag it back into the water in order to eat. In the water, they struggled to consume their food, and it’s all due to their tiny tongues.

Heiss and team took a closer look at the tongue, and found that it was covered in specialized cells called papillae. When the turtle breathes in while underwater, papillae draw oxygen from the water, which allows turtles to remain submerged indefinitely.

A turtle spending copious amounts of time underwater is not a new trait, but scientists had often wondered how common musk turtles managed to do so. Some turtles “breathe” through their skin, and others have specialized cavities in their rear that allow for oxygen exchange. Common musk turtles have neither of these things, so the discovery of the papillae-ridden tongue answered an old and vexing question. Heiss and colleagues believe the tongue is likely an ancient trait.

Source: BBC

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