Japanese researchers using silkworms to create COVID-19 vaccine

August 17, 2020

A team of scientists at Kyushu University in Japan is working to develop a possible COVID-19 vaccine using silkworms, the Nikkei Asian Review reported. The vaccine is scheduled to be tested on humans in 2021.

The researchers, led by Professor Takahiro Kusakabe at Kyushu University in Fukuoka, are utilising the silkworms like factories. Each worm produces a protein which will become the key substance in a possible vaccine. “We have about 250,000 silkworms in about 500 different phylogenies (family lines),” Kusakabe was reported as saying. From the thousands of insects in the lab, “we have found a type of silkworm that can efficiently manufacture the proteins.”

The project sees genes of the protein that forms the outer “spikes” of the coronavirus incorporated into the virus, which is then injected into a silkworm. After about four days, spike proteins that can serve as vaccine material start to be produced in large quantities by the silkworms, the report explained. Once this has happened, these proteins are removed and refined and can be made into a vaccine.

Producing spike proteins using silkworms is believed to be a safer method than using an ‘attenuated vaccines’, in which a weakened form of the virus is introduced into the human body.

Kusakabe plans to inject the spike proteins into mice first to see if this creates antibodies to block the coronavirus infection. He will then check if the antibodies can actually block the virus’s intrusion into cells. Animal testing is scheduled to be completed by early 2021, after which clinical testing on humans will begin.

“Using silkworms, you can shorten the time it takes to produce candidate substances for the vaccine to as little as about 40 days,” Kusakabe was quoted as saying.

The cost of producing the vaccine will also be lower as the silkworm method does not require large equipment.

Source: Nikkei Asian Review

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Tata Chemicals to build UK’s first industrial carbon capture plant

June 30, 2019

Image: Tata Chemicals Europe

UK producer of soda ash, sodium bicarbonate and salt, Tata Chemicals Europe (TCE) has announced plans to build the UK’s first industrial-scale carbon capture and utilisation demonstration plant to trap carbon dioxide emissions for use in its baking soda manufacturing operations.

According to the company, the project marks a world first in capturing and purifying carbon dioxide from power generation plant emission gases to use as a raw material to manufacture high purity sodium bicarbonate. Food grade liquid carbon dioxide is an essential raw material in the production of high-grade sodium bicarbonate, a chemical used in a range of products including hemodialysis, pharmaceuticals, food and animal feed, flue gas treatments, detergents and personal care products. TCE exports 60 per cent of its sodium bicarbonate to more than 60 countries across the globe.

The cost of the project, estimated at £16.7m, will be covered by TCE with the support of a £4.2m grant from the UK Government’s Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) through the Carbon Capture and Utilisation Demonstration Programme.

The company’s Northwich industrial site is scheduled to commence the carbon dioxide capture operations in 2021.  “The project will help pave the way for other industrial applications of carbon dioxide capture and is an important step in decarbonising industrial activity and supports the Government’s recently announced target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050,” TCE said in a press release.

TCE explained the carbon capture and utilisation process as follows:

The plant will “capture carbon dioxide from the flue gases of TCE’s 96MWe gas-fired combined heat and power plant (“CHP”), which supplies steam and power to the company’s Northwich operations and other industrial businesses in the area.  The CCU plant will then purify and liquify the gas for use directly in the manufacture of sodium bicarbonate. Deploying CCU technology will reduce emissions, as captured CO2 will be effectively utilized in the manufacturing process rather than being emitted into the atmosphere.

Commenting on the project, TCE Managing Director Martin Ashcroft, said:

“The CCU demonstration plant will enable us to reduce our carbon emissions, whilst securing supplies of a critical raw material, helping to grow the export of our products across the world.  Implementing this industry leading project, with such strong environmental and operational benefits is hugely exciting, and we’re pleased to be working closely with BEIS to deliver the demonstration plant.

“We hope that this project will demonstrate the viability of CCU and pave the way for further applications of the technology to support the decarbonization of industrial activity.  Our parent company, Tata Chemicals Ltd, has supported this innovative project, enabling our UK operations to continue to reduce its carbon emissions. This project is a great example of business and Government working together to rise to the challenge of decarbonising industrial production.”

Source: Tata Chemicals Europe

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Exxon spending big on clean tech advertising at Olympics

August 20, 2016

In response to pressure over climate change, Exxon Mobil Corp has been keen to show off its efforts toward advancing more clean technology through TV advertising at the Rio Olympics, Reuters reports.

According to Reuters, the four advertisements made by the oil and gas giant highlight the company’s efforts toward capturing carbon dioxide from power plants, making biofuel from algae and developing fuel-efficient cars. 

Exxon spokesperson Alan Jeffers explained that,”our main objective is to provide people with more information about the important role Exxon Mobil plays in safely and responsibly meeting the world’s growing energy demands.”

He added that, “we want to inform people about the technology and innovation that go into providing energy.”

According to iSpot.tv, Exxon has spent a total of $19.3 million to air 233 TV adverts in the US market between the 5th and 17th August this year.

The company has declined to release figures for advertising expenditure in previous years, however at the Rio Olympics, Exxon has been the eighth largest spender on TV advertising, Reuters reports. 

While there is nothing uncommon about an oil company advertising at the Olympics, this advertising package comes at a time when the company is facing mounting pressure regarding its contribution to climate change, not only from environmental groups, but also from shareholders and state attorney generals.

From shareholders, the pressure comes as governments around the world are cracking down on carbon emissions and seeking to be less dependent on fossil fuels.

This year in particular Exxon has been met by escalating pressure to act on climate change.

In what marks the first shareholder proposal to pass since 2006, in May the company’s shareholders approved a measure that may place an external climate expert on its board.

Then in March, the company came under fire when over a dozen state prosecutors announced that they would be investigating whether or not past and present Exxon executives had misled the public by contradicting research by company scientists regarding the threats posed by climate change.

In response to this criticism, Exxon representatives have claimed that the company has been unfairly targeted by environmentalist groups.

They assert that the company  has acknowledged the reality of climate change for over a decade, and supports a revenue-neutral carbon tax.

The company’s research into carbon capturing is said to have been ongoing over three decades, while it’s endeavours to make biofuel from algae date back to 2009.

 

Sources include: Reuters

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Mizuno race to make prosthetic legs ahead of 2020 Paralympics

July 29, 2016

Mizuno Corporation has announced that it will start producing prosthetic legs for sprinters from October, a recent article in the Asahi Shimbun informs us.

This allows plenty of time for the company to promote its product ahead of the Tokyo Summer Paralympics in 2020.

Paralympic silver medalist Atsushi Yamamoto (Photo: http://www.jsad.or.jp/)

For the development of their carbon-fibre prosthetic leg, the Osaka-based, international sports equipment and sportswear company collaborated with Imasen Engineering Corporation, a Gifu-based manufacturer of electric wheelchairs and other products for people with physical impairments. 

Yet this is not Imasen’s first foray into this market. In fact, they became the first Japanese company to manufacture prosthetic legs for athletes in 2007. 

Even so, according to officials from the company, at present the Japanese market in lower-limb prosthetics for athletes is dominated by two overseas manufacturers: one German and one Icelandic. And together these two companies account for 90 percent of all prosthetic legs used by athletes in sports competitions held in Japan.

Mizuno and Imasen began working together, and making trials in the summer of 2014.

In comparison to Imasen’s previous prosthetic leg, the new design is said to have a smaller and lighter metal fitting for mounting. 

Moreover, the “spring leaf” designed by the two companies and which functions as a leg, is said to be competitive on two more fronts.

Firstly in terms of price, while the cost of prosthetic legs made overseas ranges around 500,000 to 600,000 yen ($4,770 to $5,730, or €4,370 to €5,250), Imasen have said that the main body of their new product will cost around half this, coming in at less than 250,000 yen. 

Secondly, officials from the company said that the design is better tailored to fit the leg length of Japanese athletes than existing products from overseas. 

Long jump athlete and 2008 Beijing Paralympics silver medalist who helped in the development of the new prosthetic, Atsushi Yamamoto, concurred.

“We are coming close to the point where we can run at full throttle,” he said. “The new prosthetic will give a better fit to the physical builds of Japanese, so our views about it will more easily get through.”

The new prosthetic leg can be seen against a backdrop of booming developments in equipment for Paralympic athletes.

Jamie Gillespie, head prosthetist at the UK-based Pace Rehabilitation told CNN that significant changes have taken place in the last two or three years.

“It used to be that there were only two types of running blade, but companies are now offering a greater range for different competitions, adjusted to boost performance, so the challenge now is to find the right blade for the right person for the right sport.”

Meanwhile Andy Lewis, gold medalist at the 2015 Madrid Paratriathalon, said, “By the Paralympics in 2016 I can envisage a lot of new legs coming out …The knees are getting smaller, the legs will have microprocessors, and you will be able to press a button to change foot for the different events.”

At the same time, these technological advancements will not only be to the benefit of athletes. Looking beyond the 2020 Paralympics,Yasunori Kaneko head of Mizuno’s research and development department told Asahi Shimbun, “We don’t want to stop with just making prosthetic legs.”

“We also hope to develop products that will enhance the abilities of those who have lost their physical functions and of elderly people.”

 

Sources include: Asahi Shimbun and CNN

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Warmer ocean threatens California sea lion population

July 25, 2016
Photos of California sea lions

California sea lion harem at San Miguel Island rookery. Taken by Tony Orr (NOAA)

According to a recent Reuters article, biologists have reported worrying trends in the California sea lion population resulting from a warming ocean. This has seen both lower birth rates, and an alarming increase in young sea lions starving and being stranded on the beaches.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), since January this year, already over 2,000, mostly young sea lions have been found either dead or dying on the southern and central coasts of California.

This is apparently over twice the average number of stranded animals considered normal, yet comes nowhere near the record 4,600 beached sea lions found in 2015, predominantly in the first half of that year. (Of those animals beached in 2015, rescue teams were able to rehabilitate and release 1,300. The rest were already dead when found or died during rehabilitation.)

Rather than seeing this year’s reduction in stranded sea lions as a positive sign, however, NOAA biologists have proposed that this fall may in fact be a consequence of the declining birthrate. Both phenomena are thought to be due to rising ocean temperatures along the Pacific Coast, which has caused increasing scarcity in the sea lion’s food supply of sardines, anchovy and squid.

The California sea lion population has been estimated to be around 300,000; however this was prior to the dramatic rise in beached animals which began in 2013, the overall impact of which has not yet been calculated.

In contrast to other sea lion populations, California sea lions are not yet considered too be a species at risk. Nevertheless, if continued for a decade or more, this trend could pose “pretty dire consequences,” said NOAA’s Jeff Laake. 

According to Laake, “It’s all nutrition-based.” 

Scarcity of food around the island rookeries off Southern California has lead nursing mothers to venture further afield to feed their pups, which in turn has meant young sea lions being left on their own for greater periods of time. 

Normally, the pups fast for several days while their mothers are away, however, with longer to wait, many malnourished pups and juveniles stray from the islands in search of food, before being caught up in currents and washed up on mainland beaches.

The reproductive cycle of these marine mammals has also been severely affected. NOAA figures from the Santa Barbara coast in the Channel Islands show a 40 percent fall in sea lion births between 2014 and 2015. According to Reuters, this is also due to food-related stresses on adult female sea lions. The more energy required to find prey, the harder it is for them to successfully breed or carry their pups to term.

The rise in sea temperatures has been linked to a decline in winds which help bring cooler, nutrition-rich water from the depths of the Pacific up closer to the surface. It is unclear how long these conditions will persist and experts have postulated that this situation may have been exacerbated by the recent El Niño impact. 

In 1983, another El Niño year, California sea lion pup numbers on all rookery islands in the Channel Islands declined between 30 – 71 percent, according to the NOAA, and it took another 6 years before the recorded total born and that survived equalled those recorded in 1982. 

Sources include: Reuters and NOAA

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Neuroscientists publish most detailed human brain map yet

July 21, 2016

In a new paper published in Nature, neuroscientists have set out the most comprehensive brain atlas to date.

Over the centuries, countless attempts have been made to classify the regions of the brain, however, this research is the most advanced to date, BBC News has reported. 

Specifically, the authors of the paper have demarcated 180 compartments of the cortex, 97 of which have been identified for the first time.

Image by David Shattuck, PhD. and Paul M. Thompson, PhD. http://www.humanconnectomeproject.org/gallery/

Behind this paper is the Human Connectome Project, a US-led collaboration which aims to demystify both the wiring of the brain and how this affects our behaviour. 

According to Dr Emma Robinson, co-author of the paper and a member of the Oxford University team behind the software used to analyse the project’s massive amount of data, “This is the culmination of the entire HCP project that we’ve been working towards,”

“This paper is really a mammoth effort by Matthew Glasser and David Van Essen (of Washington University in St Louis, Missouri) – manually labelling brain regions, but also pulling together all the streams that we’ve been working on, trying to collect incredibly high quality images and state of the art imaging processing techniques.”

 In order to procure this data, the HCP team initially held long scanning sessions of the brains of 210 individuals.

One part of the research consisted of observing the physical properties of the brain. For example, variations in the folds and thickness of the cortex; and within the cortex, the amount of myelin, a substance which enfolds nerve fibres, that could be detected throughout.

The researchers also examined brain activity, looking specifically at which parts of the brain were triggered by particular activities, and the degree to which activity levels in different parts of the brain correlated and coordinated with one another. 

The 180 areas of the brain were distinguished using automatic computational tools, which the HCP team then tested and confirmed through 210 fresh brain scans. 

Prof Tim Behrens, who is involved in the HCP but who did not have a hand in the paper said, “Every one of those 180 areas in this paper is described in detail – its relation to the previous literature, its functional properties, its anatomical properties… Nobody will do as good a job as this for a long time.”

“It will now be the parcellation that is used by all of neuroscience, I would think.”

Prof Simon Eickhoff of the University of Dusseldorf in Germany, who was not involved in the research,meanwhile described the research as “a really big step forward”.

At the same time, he sought to put the paper in context. 

“If you look at the classical brain maps, even from the 19th century – they were whole-brain maps; they had a label for every spot on the cortex. Any part of the brain has already been looked at.

“[This work] certainly defines something clearly, where knowledge has been imprecise and maybe contradictory. But ‘new’ is a tricky term.”

Nevertheless, Prof Behrens proposed that this new map “conceptually changes things.”

“Brain areas are not coarsely divided with, say, 50 pieces that we need to figure out what they’re doing.”

“As you get more and better data, you can subdivide it further and further – and we should be thinking about the brain in this much more granular way.”

Sources: BBC News and humanconnectomeproject.org

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