Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Creating Life

The reason I haven't been posting much lately (well, the excuse I'm giving, anyway) is that I've been doing the writing for which I'm paid: a conference paper on integrated functional networks and two book chapters, one on gene networks and evolutionary computation, and one on synthetic biology. They are all, of course, little masterpieces, carefully crafted and polished [1], but I was particularly inspired by the last-mentioned.

I volunteered to write the chapter because I'm interested in synthetic biology, didn't know a huge amount about it, and wanted an excuse to learn. The ultimate aim is simple, if ambitious: to create life from scratch. The intermediate aims are to engineer the genomes of existing organisms to produce specific, predictable behaviour. We already have a field of genetic engineering, of course, but it tends to be pretty restrained. Dropping a cold-resistance gene from a deep-sea fish into a banana genome so Inuit can grow their own banana sundaes[2] is one thing; producing a lawn of bacteria which acts as a photographic film[3] is quite another. I started out quite skeptical about whether it was possible to do anything large-scale and significant, but ended up pretty impressed with the possibilities.

We're nowhere near creating life from scratch, of course. Although a virus (polio) has been created by simply building a chromosome from its published sequence[4], it did need the cytoplasm from an existing cell in order to reproduce. And viruses are as simple as you get, to the point where some people deny they're alive (although I think that's ridiculous - they have obviously evolved from more complex creatures; can you evolve from being alive to not being alive?). But it's a very impressive start.

I think there's huge scope for computational intelligence and machine learning approaches in this field, and I'd love to work on it. Manybe once I've cured cancer and ended ageing...

[1] And thankfully now the problems of their respective editors, instead of me.
[2] Sadly, to the best of my knowledge, not yet done. My next grant, perhaps?
[3] Levskaya, A., Chevalier, A. A., Tabor, J. J., Simpson, Z. B., Lavery, L. A., Levy, M., Davidson, E. A., Scouras, A., Ellington, A. D., Marcotte, E. M. & Voigt, C. A. (2005). Engineering Escherischia coli to see light. Nature 438: 441 - 442.
[4] Cello, J., Paul, A. V. & Wimmer, E. (2002). Chemical synthesis of Poliovirus cDNA: Generation of infectious virus in the absence of natural template. Science 297: 1016 - 1018. And they just ordered the DNA from commercial producers. Very cool.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Eat, Drink and Be Merry

It's no longer a problem, according to research published in Nature last week. At least, that's how it's been widely reported in the press. The magic potion resveratrol, as found in red wine, has been shown to counteract many of the health impacts of a bad diet, in mice. So, as long as you have a nice cab. sav. with your Big Mac, you'll be fine.

Of course, the reality is not quite so rosy. For one thing, the amount of resveratrol the mice were given is many times higher than most people get out of wine - a glass of wine contains 0.3% of the dose the mice were given (adjusted for body size, of course). That means you'd need to drink around 300 glasses of red per day to get the same benefits. Some brave souls have tried, but oddly enough good health doesn't seem to increase with increasing alcohol consumption. Clearly, the merlot-with-your-cornflakes approach isn't going to cut it.

Resveratrol is readily available over the internet, and is believed to be safe. Since we don't know the mechanism of action, however, this may not be the case if it's taken for long periods of time. And, of course, humans may not necessarily react the same way as the mice. People aren't mice; it would be a pity to turn them into guinea pigs.

So I reluctantly put down the fries and head out for a run. I can always have a glass of red when I get back, just to be on the safe side.