There are exciting things happening in the Berkeley life science research industry. Of particular interest is the developing partnership between UC Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley Lab. This partnership has the potential to foster more collaboration between institutions and allow for more joint research ventures in the East Bay Area.
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Synthetic biology is the application of engineering principles to altering components of biological systems, like genes and cells, towards creating new and revised living things (watch the video below for an introduction). It's arguably the most radical, cutting-edge laboratory science field today, and one that calls on its scientists to grapple with ethics as well as biotechnology. At the forefront of this life science revolution is the University of California Berkeley-led consortium SynBERC: the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center, with partner colleagues at UCSF, Stanford, MIT, and Harvard. Just this week, principal synbio investigators from these institutions came together with industry scientists and ethicists for a symposium on the UCB campus titled Programming Life: the revolutionary potential of synthetic biology, co-sponsored by SynBERC and Discover Magazine. Whether we are going to continue down the road of reengineering life was not the question so much as how we will go about that delicate task and what the implications and promises are of such a bold project.
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The Brain Activity Map project could be the next big federal life science research endeavor, with no less a goal than the mapping of the entire living brain and all its neuronal activity. Like the Human Genome Project of the 90's, the not insignificant financial outlay is being presented as an investment that will net even bigger returns, both in terms of new technology and a vastly increased understanding of the mind. President Obama is expected to include the multi-billion dollar, decade-long funding in his upcoming budget proposal, and neuroscience research was a topic he addressed specifically in his recent State of the Union address.
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2012 was a big year for the science of snipping DNA to introduce genetic changes into a cell, also known as genome editing. Though Science magazine hailed two new techniques for selectively cutting and pasting DNA in the field of genome engineering as together constituting one of the Top 10 scientific breakthroughs of the year, those methods may already have been surpassed by researchers at the University of California Berkeley using RNA and a single protein. Faster, simpler, and cheaper, the UCB team led by Dr. Jennifer Doudna published initial results of their work genetically modifying bacteria using the RNA-based DNA cleavage technique last summer. The response from the the life science community was extremely positive, with reviews calling it a "tour de force" and a "a real hit," according to the latest press release. Now three more papers are coming out based on the work of the Doudna Lab showing that the RNA programming technique using a bacterial enzyme known as Cas9 is equally effective in making alterations to human genes.
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The smooth and efficient functioning of any system necessarily requires a mechanism for recognizing and removing components that have served their purpose and are no longer needed, in order to make way for ones that are. It's waste disposal, and at the cellular level it's the important activity of proteasomes that maintain cellular health by identifying and degrading proteins that have been targeted as obsolete or damaged. (To put this in perspective, consider that at any given moment a human cell typically contains about 100,000 different proteins.) This housekeeping function of proteasomes is critical to a broad range of vital biochemical processes, including transcription, DNA repair, and the immune defense system. Since the proteasome process was only first described in 2004 (by Nobel Prize-winning chemists), our understanding of its mechanics has been limited.
The 1000 Genomes Project is an international genomic research and data collection effort that has produced "a deep catalog of human genetic variation" for public research use. Now, thanks to Amazon Web Services (AWS) and the White House's recently-announced Big Data Research and Development Initiative, the 1000 Genomes data is available gratis on the AWS cloud. In reality, there are over 1700 genome profiles in the demographically-diverse study, and all that data takes up about 200 terabytes of memory, according to a New York Times article on the cloud bonanza. So even though researchers could download the data free to their own computers from 1000 Genomes directly before, it's something you really don't want to do, even if you have that kind of memory (re: 200TB). Instead, you'll likely be better off accessing the data through AMS and paying them to crunch numbers for you, which probably explains why AWS has decided to engage in this bit of philanthropy. Future profit, plus their preeminence as a computational resource in the brave new world of Big Data.
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Most Americans who celebrate Christmas look forward to getting a bushy conifer for their living rooms in December. A fresh tree smells so good that we can almost believe we're in the woods. Candle companies sell vast quantities of scented pillars with names like "Siberian Fir" for those folks who just can't get enough of the pungent green aromatic. That being said, imagine getting an early gift of not one tree but 4,584 acres of prime California forestland? That's what happened last month when the UC Center for Forestry was notified that it would receive two huge parcels of former utility land on which to conduct research. To be clear: