Italy to run on 0.6% biofuel by 2018

October 16, 2014

From 2018, 0.6% of petrol and diesel used in Italy will be made up of advanced biofuels, the BBC reports. This is set to increase to 1% by 2022.

The Italian government is the first in Europe to take a stand on biofuels. The ministerial decree is in line with the European Parliament target for 2.5% of energy used within the transportation sector to consist of advanced biofuels (made of seaweed and waste) by 2020.

The European Council then downgraded this to a non-binding target of 0.5% advanced biofuels by 2020.
The measures are part of the EU energy directive, which requires renewable energy sources to provide 10% of transportation fuel by 2020.

The use of fuels made from crops has been a source of controversy within the EU for some years. Many claim the growing of crops used for first generation biofuel production, including sugar, cereals and oilseed, take up land space needed to grow food. In addition, there are worries surrounding the volume of carbon emissions generated by biofuels. Despite this, a number of new second generation biofuels plants have recently opened.

The biofuel industry has also been lobbying hard to promote the use of biofuels within the EU.
A commercial scale advanced biofuels plant was opened in Crescentino near Turin, in Italy last year. The plant produces approximately 75 million litres of biofuel from waste and energy crops, grown on marginal land.

Plans to open three further plants in the south of the country are also in motion.

Chris Malins from the the International Council on Clean Transportation commented on the Italian decree: “This is quite an exciting time, things are finally starting to happen,”

“This shows Italy taking a real leadership role in Europe. It will be an example and a signal to other countries that are interested in this.”

Sources: BBC; The Green Optimistic

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Blooming bouquets! Japanese scientists discover flower aging cure

July 4, 2014

morning-glory-173440_640Japanese Scientists at the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, claim to have found a way to delay the aging process in flowers by up to half, keeping bouquets fresh for longer.

Discovery of the gene believed to be responsible for the short shelf-life of flowers in one Japanese variety of morning glory is responsible for the breakthrough. By suppressing this gene — named “EPHEMERAL1″ — scientists found the life span of each flower was almost doubled.

“Morning glory” is the name for a large group of flowering plants whose petals unfurl early in the day and begin to fade and curl by nightfall. So far, the scientists have managed to isolate the aging gene in just one variety of Japanese morning glory but believe these methods could be applied to other flower species.

“Unmodified flowers started withering 13 hours after they opened, but flowers that had been genetically modified stayed open for 24 hours,” said Kenichi Shibuya, one of the lead researchers in the study carried out jointly with Kagoshima University.

This means the plant has fresh purple flowers alongside the paler blooms from the previous day, he said.

This gene is linked to petal aging, the researchers discovered. Although the scientists have only modified the genes of living flowers in the study, their discovery could lead to  the development of methods to extend the life of cut flowers.

“It would be unrealistic to modify genes of all kinds of flowers, but we can look for other ways to suppress the (target) gene . . . such as making cut flowers absorb a solution that prevents the gene from becoming active,” said Shibuya.

Some florists currently use chemicals to inhibit ethylene, a plant hormone which sometimes causes blooms to ripen, in the preparation of some cut flowers. This does not always help as ethylene is not present in the aging process of some very popular flowers, such as lilies, tulips and irises.

A gene similar to EPHEMERAL1 could be responsible for petal aging in these plants, Shibuya said, meaning the ability to suppress it would extend their life.

Source: The Japan Times

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US researchers create cheap rechargeable batteries out of wood

June 25, 2013

A team of scientists at the University of Maryland have developed an environmentally-friendly battery from little more than a tiny sliver of wood.

Hongli Zhu and colleagues looked to Mother Nature in their quest to seek a viable alternative to conventional rechargeable batteries, which are increasingly costly to use on a large scale due to the scarcity of the lithium required to power them. Regular batteries are typically built on a lithium base, although such foundations must be replaced regularly, as the resultant swelling and shrinking that takes place during the charging process. The team hoped to replace lithium with sodium electrolyte, which are a much cheaper and plentiful in supply. However, sodium ions are several times larger than lithium ions, causing greater damage to the battery’s anode during the charging process. The use of a tin anode as the main foundations for the battery was also eliminated as a viable option, as, unlike lithium, a sodium-tin alloy caused the battery to swell, quickly damaging the battery beyond use.

The team’s response is both innovative and resourceful: they discovered that a tin anode could be bypassed completely, and replaced instead by natural wood fibres, which are capable of transporting the larger sodium ions without resulting in the same ‘structural pulverisation’ as the sodium-tin alloy. By covering a 50-nanometre-thick layer of tin onto a 2500-nanometre-thick wood fibres, the researchers were able to eliminate lithium from the equation completely.

Liangbing Hu, assistant professor of material science at the University of Maryland, stated in the press release that “the inspiration behind the idea comes from the trees. Wood fibers that make up a tree once held mineral-rich water, and so are ideal for storing liquid electrolytes, making them not only the base but an active part of the battery.” These wood fibres, which are made up of hollow cells which are used to transport water and minerals around the living organism, are advantageous in several ways. They are much more supple than conventional battery anodes, meaning that the degradation process is much slower. Whereas a sodium-tin alloy anode wears out within 20 charging cycles, the flexible and porous wood anode was shown to endure over 400 charging cycles, after which it remained intact, if not somewhat wrinkled.

The wood fibre anodes, are not only much more durable than regular rechargeable batteries, but are also much cheaper to process, not to mention environmentally friendly. The team hopes to use the wood anode in the manufacturing of low-cost batteries, as well as producing the batteries on a much larger scale for use in renewable storage applications: a challenging, but ultimately rewarding for science and for the environment.

Sources include New Scientist, Forbes

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Angelina Jolie and the Supreme Court: can genes be patented?

June 17, 2013

On Thursday, the US Supreme Court handed down a landmark ruling regarding the ability of private companies to patent and own DNA. The Supreme Court held that DNA was “inherently naturally occurring” and therefore fell outside the parameters of US patent laws. Yet the applicant, Myriad Genetic Inc, did have a partial victory. The Supreme Court, led in this case by the Conservative Justice Scalia, held that synthetically created DNA so-called “cDNA” can be subject to patent applications. The logic of this legal distinction is difficult to follow. We know that most patent applications come from major pharmaceutical corporations seeking to patent a particular prescriptive medication for general use. The elements in these medications are, in the main, what Justice Scalia would call “naturally occurring” as they are, for the most part, natural chemical compounds found in our natural environment. So should they, if we follow Justice Scalia’s supposed logic, be subject to patent laws? Arguably not.

Yet many refuse to believe that the reasoning in this case is by any means the real motive for this decision, nor is it the motive for allowing circumspect patent laws in the first place. For example: most industrialised nations permit major pharmaceutical corporations to patent medication for a limited period of time. Why is this? The motive is very simple. Pharmaceutical companies plough vast sums of money into research and development; indeed many medications never even reach the open market. So in order to encourage this cycle we allow companies to patent their designs for limited periods of time. But why limit the patent period at all? In effect it is simple pragmatism. While we wish to reward companies who have successfully developed a product we do not wish to grant them a monopoly over a particular discovery or indeed over an emerging medical industry. Hence, after a certain period of time, generic manufactures will be permitted to manufacture the medication previously under patent.

This same logic underlines the Supreme Court’s decision in this case. Myriad Genetics, a Utah based medical research and screening company, attempted to patent two genes linked to a higher likelihood of developing breast and ovarian cancer. Myriad carries out tests for BRCA genes, recently brought into the public eye when actor Angelina Jolie revealed she had a double mastectomy after learning she tested positive for one of the genes.

If the patent over the DNA itself had been successful, it would have given Myriad an effective monopoly upon ovarian and breast cancer screening in the United States. Why? Because the patents allowed Myriad, which sells the only BRCA gene test, to set the cost and other parameters of tests, making it very difficult for women to access alternate tests or get a comprehensive second opinion about their results.

Yet the decision to permit Myriad to patent certain ancillary methods of screening via so-called “cDNA” gives the company some hope for the future.  As Dr Penny Gilbert, a partner at UK law firm PowellGilbert and expert in life sciences, explains: “It was by all accounts a pragmatic, compromise decision.” “It’s not as bad as had been anticipated by the biotech industry, because it is clear you can have patents for cloned genes in certain circumstances” Gilbert said. “Modern methods of cloning genes will still be patentable.”

Yet the Supreme Court’s decision should be welcomed by ordinary women as it has made the cost of screening much less prohibitive. Myriad, at the outset of the case, sold the only BRCA gene test in the United States, costing just over $3,000. Not long after the ruling, DNA Traits, a clinical laboratory of Gene By Gene Ltd., said it would offer the same BRCA gene test for $995 – less than one-third of Myriad’s price.

The Supreme Court ruling, coupled with Angelina Jolie’s decision to go public with her own screening and her subsequent double mastectomy, is good news for cancer suffers and activists in the United States.

Sources include Japan Times and the Guardian.

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Mind controlled prosthetics aim to make wheelchairs obsolete

May 14, 2013

“We want to galvanize people’s imaginations,” said Miguel Nicolelis, the Brazilian neuroscientist at Duke University who is leading the Walk Again Project’s efforts to create a robotic suit that could one day ‘make wheelchairs obsolete’.

Mind-controlled leg armor may sound like science fiction. But after decades of testing on rats and monkeys, neuro prosthetics are finally beginning to show promise for people. Devices plugged directly into the brain seem capable of restoring some self-reliance to stroke victims, car crash survivors, injured soldiers and others hampered by incapacitated or missing limbs.

Nicolelis is a pioneer in the field. In the 1990s, he helped build the first mind-controlled arm. Rats learned they could manipulate the device to get a drink of water simply by thinking about doing so.

Researchers studied the signals as the rats pushed a lever to guide the arm that gave them water, and they saw groups of neurons firing at different rates as the rats moved the lever in different directions. An algorithm was developed to decipher the patterns, discern the animal’s intention at any given moment and send commands from the brain directly to the arm instead of to the lever. Eventually, rats could move the arm without pushing the lever at all.

Using similar brain-machine interfaces, Nicolelis and his team learned to translate the neural signals in primate brains. In 2000, they reported that an owl monkey connected to the Internet had controlled an arm located 1,000 km away. Eight years later, the team described a rhesus monkey that was able to dictate the pace of a robot jogging on a treadmill half a world away in Japan.

Small groups of neurons, it seemed, were surprisingly capable of communicating with digital devices. Individual cells learn to communicate with computer algorithms more effectively over time by changing their firing patterns, as revealed in a study of a mouse’s brain published last year in Nature. “You can count on this plasticity when designing a prosthetic,” said Jose Carmena, a neuroscientist at the University of California at Berkeley. “You can count on the brain to learn.”

Capitalizing on that adaptability, several human quadriplegics have received implanted brain chips in FDA-approved clinical trials. In a widely publicized demonstration of that system, a 58-year-old woman paralyzed by a stroke sipped a cup of coffee last year using a five-fingered robotic arm, not attached to her body. Despite the slickness of the presentation, however, the woman actually had little control over the aesthetically pleasing arm. Her thoughts triggered preset choreography. “What she was controlling was really simplistic, really rudimentary,” said Andrew Schwartz, a neuroscientist at the University of Pittsburgh.

His team’s robotic arm offers much more freedom, as well as greater agility and speed. Funded in part by the U.S. military and built at the university, the freestanding mechanical limb sports a wrist that bends and rotates.  Jan Scheuermann, a 53-year-old with a rare degenerative disorder, named the arm “Hector” and learned in a single day to move it around like a claw in an arcade game. After 13 weeks of training, she mastered the fine control needed to grasp objects and stack cones. Fulfilling a long-standing goal, she fed herself a chocolate bar — and followed it with some string cheese and a red pepper.

To achieve this dexterity, Schwartz’s team had implanted two chips in Scheuermann’s brain instead of the usual one. The duo monitored about 200 neurons at once, more than ever before. More neurons communicate more information, helping to clarify the brain’s desires.

But even hundreds of cells may not be enough to allow someone to control two mechanical limbs at once — a device that scientists hope to showcase at the upcoming World Cup. “You really need to reach thousands of neurons,” said Nicolelis. That is why his team is developing a new kind of electrode that branches like a tree, covering a larger volume of the brain. Made of a flexible plastic that conducts electricity, the electrode can monitor nearly 2,000 brain cells in a mouse.

Nicolelis’s dream is for the very first kick of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Sao Paulo next June to be delivered by a Brazilian teenager who is paralyzed from the waist down. If all goes according to plan, the teenager will walk onto the field, cock back a foot and swing at the soccer ball using a mechanical exoskeleton controlled by the teen’s brain.

Motorized metal braces will support and bend the kicker’s legs. The braces will be stabilized by gyroscopes and powered by a battery carried by the kicker in a backpack. German-made sensors will relay a feeling of pressure when each foot touches the ground. And months of training on a virtual-reality simulator will have prepared the teenager to do all this using a device that translates his or her thoughts into actions.

The blueprints for next summer’s soccer exoskeleton also include sensors that will provide an artificial skin for its human wearer. With the world watching, Nicolelis hopes not only that his bionic teenager will be able to feel the ball but also that disabled people everywhere will feel a sense of hope.

Source: The Washington Post

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3D printing technology produces functional liver tissue for pharmaceutical research

April 29, 2013

The idea of lab-grown organs has been a dream for scientists for many years. Instead of spending years on an organ donation list, patients could have new hearts, kidneys and livers tailor-made for them from scratch in the laboratory, precisely when they are needed. Such goals may still seem a long way off, but a San Diego-based company has taken a giant leap towards making this dream a reality.

Using a 3D printer, the regenerative medicine company Organovo have successfully produced tiny sections of liver tissue which look, feel and function just like human liver. They presented their findings at the Experimental Biology conference in Boston this week, suggesting that future versions of the system could produce large chunks of liver which could be used in medical transplants. It sounds like science fiction. So how does it work?

Just like a normal 3D printer, a series of lasers guide the construction of the product. But instead of being filled with printer ink or plastic, Organovo’s printer is loaded with existing liver cells collected from, for example, surgical waste, or donated livers unsuitable for transplant. The printer then deposits these cells one at a time into a 3D honeycomb-like formation, building up around 20 layers of hepatocytes and stellate cells (the two main types of liver cells). Cells from the lining of blood vessels are also added, and as this formation matures, it comes to form tissue which functions just like normal human liver.

At just 4 millimetres wide and half a millimetre deep, these ‘mini-livers’ are a far cry from a life-sized transplant for human use, but Organovo’s creations will prove revolutionary in pharmaceutical research. Researchers performing drug experiments on human tissue currently rely on flat, two-dimensional cultures, which have no more than one or two layers of cells. These cultures, however, are limited in their utility, as they do not function in the same way as real organ tissue. As a result, many early drug experiments produce results that would not be replicated in humans. Organovo’s 3D liver tissue addresses this problem, by providing a life-like environment which is able to accurately predict the toxicity of drugs and other substances. Not only do the mini-livers last much longer than the flat cell cultures, they are also able to produce albumin, the liver protein which transports salts, hormones and drugs around the body, as well as cholesterol and the detoxification enzymes (cytochrome P450s) which break down drugs in the liver. As such, Orgonovo predict that pharmaceutical drug testing on their three-dimensional tissue to be much more accurate than their two-dimensional predecessors.

Organovo has produced 3D tissue of other human structures before, such as blood vessels, but this is the first time they have taken on an organ as complex as the liver. The company hopes to begin selling the printed liver tissue to drug research companies as early as 2014. The next goal is to scale up the size of the liver tissue samples into a structure large enough to be transplanted into the human body, something which Organovo’s Chief Technology Officer Sharon Presnell believes is challenging, but not impossible. She said, ‘I’m not saying I’m going to give you an entire liver in a box, but I do believe we will see implantable liver tissue in my lifetime.’

Sources include New Scientist, KPBS, Organovo

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Genetically modified Ecoli bacteria can produce bio fossil fuel

April 26, 2013

Biofuels are produced from living organisms or from organic or food waste products. In order to be considered a biofuel the fuel must contain over 80 percent renewable materials.

While petrol and diesel release carbon dioxide that has been stored deep within the Earth, biofuels are said to be carbon neutral because they release as much CO2 into the atmosphere as the plants they are made from absorbed.

Until now, biofuels have been made up of hydrocarbon chains of the wrong size and shape to be truly compatible with most modern engines – they’ll work, but only inefficiently, and over time they will corrode the engine.

However scientists from the University of Exeter have announced in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.that they have created a strain of bacteria that can produce fuel. Researchers genetically modified E. coli , the bacteria traditionally associated with food poisoning outbreaks,  to convert sugar into an oil that is almost identical to conventional diesel.

John Love from the University of Exeter in the UK and colleagues took genes from the camphor tree, soil bacteria and blue-green algae and spliced them into DNA from Escherichia coli bacteria. When the modified E. coli were fed glucose, the enzymes they produced converted the sugar into fatty acids and then turned these into hydrocarbons that were chemically and structurally identical to those found in commercial fuel.”We are biologically producing the fuel that the oil industry makes and sells,” says Love.The team now needs to work out how to scale-up the project to mass-produce hydrocarbons.

If the process can be scaled up, this synthetic fuel could be a viable alternative to fossil fuel. Professor John Love, a synthetic biologist from the University of Exeter, said: “Rather than making a replacement fuel like some biofuels, we have made a substitute fossil fuel.

“The idea is that car manufacturers, consumers and fuel retailers wouldn’t even notice the difference – it would just become another part of the fuel production chain.”

There is a push to increase the use of biofuels around the world. In the European Union, a 10% target for the use of these crop-based fuels in the transport sector has been set for 2020.

But most forms of biodiesel and bioethanol that are currently used are not fully compatible with modern engines. Fractions of the substances (between 5-10%) need to be blended with petroleum before they can be used in most engines.

However, the fuel produced by the modified E. coli bacteria is different.  Love explained: “What we’ve done is produced fuels that are exactly the chain length required for the modern engine and exactly the composition that is required.

“They are bio-fossil-fuels if you like.” To create the fuel, the researchers, who were funded by the oil company Shell and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, used a strain of E. coli that usually takes in sugar and then turns it into fat.

Using synthetic biology, the team altered the bacteria’s cell mechanisms so that the sugar was converted to synthetic fuel molecules instead. By altering the bacteria’s genes, they were able to transform the bugs into fuel-producing factories. However, the E. coli did not make much of the fuel.

Professor Love said currently it would take about 100 litres of bacteria to produce a single teaspoon of the fuel. “Our challenge is to increase the yield before we can go into any form of industrial production,” he said.

“We’ve got a time frame of about three to five years to do that and see if it is worth going ahead with it. “Paul Freemont of Imperial College London describes the work as a “beautiful study”. He says it illustrates the potential of using a similar approach for bio-manufacturing not only biofuels but other chemicals we currently source from petroleum, such as those used to make plastics, solvents or detergents

Sources include: Alternative Energy News, The New Scientist, BBC News

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