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The Ripley factor, believe it

September 1, 2003


Ron Wirtz Editor, fedgazette
The Ripley factor, believe it

E. coli vaccine? Aisle 2, next to the apples
The World Bank has been sponsoring research to develop edible vaccines in fruit. The effort stems mostly from the desire to overcome inadequate transportation and medical delivery systems in poor countries.

Researchers are developing bananas that produce antigens for use as edible vaccines against the diarrhea induced by E. coli. First, researchers developed an E. coli protein in potatoes that would produce an immune response in humans. Now they are working to transplant that protein into the more easily eaten banana.

Want nerves of steel? Try a little goat's milk
Scientists have long marveled at the combination of strength and flexibility of spider silk. Several years ago already, researchers with the Montreal firm Nexia Biotechnologies discovered that the protein in spider silk is very similar to a protein found in the milk of goats. It then created a genetically altered goat that could produce the spider silk protein, which is extracted to produce fibers. In January of this year, Nexia announced it had developed a commercial spinning process for the fibers.

The next step for the firm is to complete the last leg to weaveable fiber, which it hopes to accomplish this year. After regulatory approval, Nexia is planning to spin its product—BioSteel(™)—into the medical suture market.

Diamonds are a bioterrorist's worst friend
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin appear to have found a way to arm airports and other terrorist targets with better security without the look of martial law.

Chemists there have developed a highly stable DNA-modified diamond film that—at least in the lab—can be integrated with microelectronic devices. The "platform" between biology and microelectronics has long plagued surface-chemistry scientists, but the diamond film appears to be the bridge scientists were looking for.

When fully developed, such a bio-chip can perform bio-sensing (or sniff biological agents) around the clock wherever installed—bus depots, airports, subways, stadiums, even battlefields—and in sizes no larger than a postage stamp. While significant product development is still necessary, scientists involved say the hardest scientific work is behind them.

Emergency biomass to the rescue
Bioscience may lead to fuel production on the battlefield, offering the military both emergency fuel options and an alternative to long supply lines that are often difficult to defend.

Though a long way from ever being tested, the process—being studied at Purdue University's Laboratory of Renewable Resources Engineering—involves the collection of any biomass, including food wastes, wood, grass, paper and cartons, and then adds enzymes to begin the process of breaking those materials down to simple sugars—a process not far removed from the production of ethanol.

Anaerobic digesters: the smell of power
Anaerobic digesters are becoming more common on farms and other places that have to deal with large volumes of waste. These systems harvest the methane that emanates from farm animal manure or municipal waste and then burn that natural gas for power.

Digesters are also a simple demonstration of the broad (some might say low-tech) applicability of bioscience: Bacteria (living organisms) generate chemical reactions as they digest the solids in manure, and that chemical reaction produces methane—that's the bio part of it. The secondary science part of it—engineering—is learning how to capture the released gas and funnel it for reuse.

Buddy, can I bum a biotech heater?
Want to light up, but just don't have the urge? That day might be coming, as last year Vector Tobacco unveiled a low-nicotine cigarette, accomplished by genetically modifying tobacco to block the production of nicotine in the plant's roots.

But that doesn't mean anti-smoking groups are blowing rings of praise. In fact, they argue that it might lead to increased smoking because of the perception that smoking is less dangerous, when in fact the biotech cigarette only lessens one of numerous dangerous elements. Farmers of nonbiotech tobacco also have the same fears as Midwest corn and soybean farmers regarding possible contamination of, or cross-pollination with, regular tobacco plants.

A discotheque in your fish tank
A Taiwanese scientist has genetically modified the zebrafish to glow in the dark, a development that could ripple through the pet industry. The scientist stumbled upon the application by accident. In the process of doing research on genetically modified fish for medical purposes, a fluorescent protein found in jellyfish was used as a genetic marker so scientists could see specific genes more easily, which is a common practice. In fact, scientists elsewhere have created partially fluorescent mice, insects, even pigs. But the glowing fish are the first application to exhibit the fluorescent color in every cell.

Taikong, a Taiwanese company, saw an immediate market in the pet industry for the small fish. However, initial market sentiment over the fish varies. A U.S. company is already reportedly working on distribution here, while pet stores in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe have allegedly been very cool to the genetically modified novelty. The company said it has developed a process that sterilizes 90 percent of the fish, which they claim—and some marine biologists refute—is enough to protect native species should the novelty pet get released into nature's ecosystems.

Ron Wirtz
Editor, fedgazette

Ron Wirtz is a Minneapolis Fed regional outreach director. Ron tracks current business conditions, with a focus on employment and wages, construction, real estate, consumer spending, and tourism. In this role, he networks with businesses in the Bank’s six-state region and gives frequent speeches on economic conditions. Follow him on Twitter @RonWirtz.