Editor's Note: The Next List will air a full 30min profile of synthetic biologist Jay Keasling this Sunday, Feb. 10th, at 2:30PM ET (all-new time!) only on CNN.
It's a great time to be working in biotechnology. We are developing powerful new approaches to find cures to diseases, curb climate change and reduce reliance on foreign oil.
Synthetic biology promises to change the world by making biology easier to engineer and enabling solutions to some of the world’s most difficult problems.
At the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), I work with a motivated team of people that is at the forefront of the emerging field of advanced biofuels production. Our mission is to develop scientific breakthroughs to help solve the energy crisis.
Inside our Emeryville laboratories, JBEI researchers use the latest techniques in plant science, molecular biology and chemical engineering to produce affordable, sustainable, carbon-neutral fuels identical to gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.
Traditionally, most of the chemicals we use are produced using chemical synthesis, which is the combination of simple chemicals to form more complex ones. For complicated chemicals like drugs, it might take many chemical steps to produce the final molecule. Some chemicals are too difficult or impractical to produce using chemical synthesis. Due to the difficulty in producing these chemicals, many drugs and other products that could make our lives better are not available.
Since 1992, I’ve been redesigning microbes (like yeast) to be miniature chemical reactors that transform sugars into fuels.
Enzymes can do in one step what might take many steps using synthetic organic chemistry. To engineer a microbe to be a chemical factory, we graft genes from plants and other naturally occurring life forms into the microbe. Once inside the cells, the genes produce enzymes that do the chemistry to transform sugars into chemicals.
One of our first products was a yeast that we engineered to produce the life-saving anti-malarial drug artemisinin. Later this year, anti-malarial drugs bearing the microbially produced artemisinin will begin saving the lives of malaria sufferers throughout the world.
At JBEI, we are focused on making biofuels out of sugars. We have engineered microbes to transform sugars into energy-rich fuels that can directly replace petroleum-derived gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. Because we produce biofuels that have identical properties to petroleum-based fuels, there is no need to replace our cars, trucks or planes to use the fuels.
We are also exploring ways to extract sugar from cellulosic biomass, such as paper waste, trees that have fallen down in the forest, the residue of crops such as corn husks and stalks - everything but the kernel of corn - and non-food plants such as switchgrass.
Because plants grow by fixing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, burning a fuel made from cellulosic biomass does not add extra carbon to the atmosphere, unlike the burning of fossil fuels, which produces carbon emissions. In fact, our diesel reduces greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 80 percent over petroleum-derived diesel. And because we produce the fuels from non-edible cellulosic biomass, production of the fuels does not directly compete with food.
There are many advantages to advanced biofuels. That’s why we're focused on converting biomass to biofuels. I’m passionate about advancing basic science for public benefit. That’s my motivation.
Editor's Note: The Next List will air a full 30min profile of synthetic biologist Jay Keasling this Sunday, Feb. 10th, at 2:30PM ET (all-new time!) only on CNN.
Quotable Jay Keasling: “The carpets, the paint on the walls, the ceiling tiles, we have the potential to produce all of these products from sugar.”
Who is he: Jay Keasling, a pioneer in the burgeoning field of synthetic biology, is engineering microbes – single cell organisms like yeast and E. coli – to produce biofuels, medicines, even cosmetic compounds from simple ingredients like sugar cane and grass.
In addition to teaching bioengineering at UC Berkeley, Jay is CEO of the U.S. Dept of Energy’s Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) in Emeryville, California.
Why you might know him: Keasling’s biggest breakthrough came in 2003 when he and his students reprogrammed yeast to produce a synthetic version of an expensive anti-malarial drug known as artemisinin. Armed with a $42 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, they’ve since perfected this inexpensive and effective replacement drug, providing a royalty-free license for mass production to pharmaceutical giant Sanofi-Aventi. Sanofi will bring it to market in 2013, producing 100 million treatments annually. Malaria kills roughly 1 million people a year, many of them children.
Why he matters: Today Keasling is focusing his efforts on creating a new generation of biofuels. Overseeing a team of 200 researchers at the Joint BioEnergy Institute, his goal is to “engineer microbes to produce fuels that behave exactly the same as petroleum-based fuels.” Ultimately, he believes all petroleum-based products – everything from hard plastics and paints to soda bottles – can be produced from these sugar-fed microbes.
Keasling’s philosophy: “Energy is our biggest industry on the planet. But unless we stop putting carbon into the atmosphere, sea levels are going to continue to rise and it's going to create huge problems."
Something you might not know about him: Keasling's a small town boy made good. He grew up on a fifth generation pig farm in Harvard, Nebraska (pop. 1000) where hard work and family were his focus. He jokes he spent the first 18 years of his life shoveling manure. Today, he may spend his day in a lab coat, but as a single father of two adopted boys, ages nine and 15, family continues to keep him grounded.
Why biofuels matter: Keasling doesn’t think we’ll ever see a day when biofuels cost less than petroleum-based fuels, but they will be cleaner. “We won’t be extracting oil from a foreign country, then hauling it to the U.S., and putting that excess carbon into the atmosphere,” he said. Instead, by producing high performance fuels from sugars, he says we can limit the carbons released into the atmosphere and, as a result, help slow global warming.
By Anton Willis, Special to CNN
To me, boats are about great adventures. Being out on the water - even near a city - has a freedom and magic that’s hard to describe.
But when I first started work on the Oru Kayak, I had no idea how big of an adventure it would be.
Four years ago, I moved into a small San Francisco apartment, and had to put my kayak in storage. At the same time, I read a magazine article on new advances in the art and science of origami. This led to a question that soon became an obsession: what if a boat could fold up like a piece of paper? What if it could go wherever you wanted it to go?
I started folding paper models, and soon switched to full-scale plastic prototypes that I tested in the Bay and elsewhere. I built over twenty versions - first in a friend’s garage, then at Tech Shop in San Francisco. Tech Shop was a revelation: Its tools allowed me to build far better and faster, and the community got me thinking about the future of the Oru Kayak.
I met entrepreneurs who had turned obsessions into livelihoods, and encouraged me to think more about getting the Oru Kayak out into the world.
With the help of a small but committed team, the Oru Kayak launched on Kickstarter late last year. It exceeded our wildest expectations. We raised enough money to launch the business, but even more exciting was learning more about our customers, including kayak commuters in New York, scientists in Alaska, explorers in the Amazon and many other people we’d love to join on a paddling trip.
We’re now about to go into full production. We’re manufacturing Oru Kayaks not in Asia but here in California - something that we’re very proud of. We’re motivated by a shared vision of making the outdoors more accessible and connecting people to nature, even in urban areas.
Scaling up to build more than 500 kayaks in a few months certainly has its share of challenges. But it’s enormously exciting when a weekend passion becomes a grand adventure and takes you in directions you couldn’t have imagined.
My advice: Nurture your passions and let them turn into obsessions. Find a way to work on them that’s tangible and gives you joy, even if you don’t know where it’s all headed. And don’t be shy about sharing your story as you go along. You’ll find help and encouragement all over the place, and you may even find a new community, as I did with Tech Shop.
I'm now doing this with kayakers all over the globe. I’ve always been into making things, but building a community of enthusiastic supporters has been even more exciting than building a cool product.
By The Next List staff, CNN
(CNN) - Skip Rizzo is a wizard of the virtual world, a clinical psychologist and anything but your average lab geek. He’s also a key combatant in the U.S. military’s battle against post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Rizzo's lab is a part of The University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies.
Watch CNN at 2 p.m. ET on January 27 to see a half-hour look inside Rizzo's world. Here's a primer on why he's a member of CNN's The Next List:
Why you might know him: Rizzo grabbed headlines back in 2006 with "Virtual Iraq," a virtual reality PTSD therapy for combat veterans. The treatment combines latest in gaming technology with a clinical approach to treating PTSD called prolonged exposure therapy. "Virtual Iraq" is used in more than 50 Veterans Affairs hospitals in the United States.
Why he matters: Despite advances in PTSD treatment, Rizzo believes America can do more for its troops. His current effort is called STRIVE - and it's designed to prevent PTSD by intervening before a war deployment. Funded in part by grants from both the Army and Navy research communities, the 30-chapter virtual reality program will use a fully immersive, “'Band of Brothers'-like” simulation to better prepare service members for the pressures of combat before their boots hit the ground. Research trials will begin at California’s Camp Pendleton this spring.
His philosophy: Rizzo says his calling is to "take care of the folks who put themselves in harm’s way to protect our freedoms."
Oh, he's also into skull collecting: Rizzo is Harley-riding rugby player with a penchant for collecting skulls.
Why combat-related PTSD matters: One in 5 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with PTSD, according to George Washington University. That’s nearly 300,000 veterans as of October 2012. And the social and economic costs of PTSD are immense. First-year treatment alone costs the government $8,300 per person, or more than $2 billion so far. Suicides among active-duty military personnel averaged one per day in 2012. Veterans now account for 20% of suicides in the U.S., with the youngest (age 24 and younger) taking their lives at four times the rate of older veterans.
By Greg Gage, Special to CNN
Our understanding of the brain is rapidly expanding. New tools and technologies coming online allow scientists to probe deeper into the microarchitecture of the circuits of our mind. It is an exciting time to be a neuroscientist, as over the past decade our knowledge has been rapidly growing.
But these discoveries and insights have all been limited to a small, select group of individuals that have dedicated their lives to study neuroscience in graduate school and become postdocs, researchers, and professors. While most everyone is fascinated by the brain, very few get the chance to peer into the world of neurons. Because, until now, there wasn’t a way for amateurs to get involved.
Throughout history, many great contributions to science and mathematics have been made by amateurs. For example, Thomas Bopp, a factory manager and an amateur astronomer co-discovered the great Comet Hale–Bopp of 1997. Amateur mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan made so many important discoveries that India has proposed that his birthday be declared the National Mathematics Day. The reason many amateurs can contribute to these fields in particular, is that the instrumentation is very affordable.
Written By Heather M. Higgins, CNN
Video Edited By Nina Raja, CNN
A video of rainbow-pigmented cells opening and closing to the deep bass beats of an iconic 1990s rap hit has 2.1 million views on YouTube - all because a Michigan-based neuroscientist is using it to teach a new generation of young people about the brain.
“If you have an idea that involves the nervous system and electricity you can do that with very, very cheap parts – that’s the insight,” said Alex Wiltschko, a PhD student at Harvard University. “So you can clip a wire onto a squid and pump in Cypress Hill into this squid’s membrane and see its colors react, see the chromatophores open and close to the music.”
The science behind this phenomenon is explained by Greg Gage, the co-founder of Backyard Brains, the company he created to democratize neuroscience education.
“The reason why it’s dancing to the music is that at that frequency, the low frequencies have long wave forms. Those long wave forms allow current to pass by, which causes an action potential, which causes the muscles inside the chromatophores to open for that brief moment of time,” Gage said.
Editor’s Note: Max Little is an applied mathematician and founder of the Parkinson's Voice Initiative. Watch a 30-min profile of Little on CNN Sunday at 2 p.m. ET. Little's research suggests voice algorithms can be used to detect Parkinson’s disease.
By Max Little, Special to CNN
(CNN) - The most mysterious and wonderful thing that science has discovered is that reality can be understood mathematically. Just a few simple mathematical concepts, simple enough to teach to children - such as sets, calculus and symmetry - suffice to describe most of the world around us, from the flow of water to the fundamental particles of nature and the nuclear turmoil at the heart of stars, hundreds of light-years away.
There's a beauty to mathematics. Mathematics is the language of reality.
Take sound, for example. Just two simple mathematical concepts together mean that, over a short period of time, all sounds can be broken down into waves of different frequencies. So the different textures or timbres of different sounds emerge as simple consequences of the mathematical patterns of nature. FULL POST
Editor’s Note: Watch a 30-minute profile of Max Little Sunday at 2 p.m. on CNN’s “The Next List.”
By The Next List Staff, CNN
Who: Max Little, applied mathematician and project director of the Parkinson’s Voice Initiative.
Why you might know him: You probably don't, but you should. Little's bold idea is this: What if doctors could detect Parkinson’s Disease simply by the sound of your voice? He’s close to proving just that.
How the sound of your voice could be a test for Parkinsons: The idea sounds wild, but Little says he can determine if a person has Parkinson's simply if a person says "ahhhhhh" into a phone for 10 seconds. You don't have to have symptoms for it to work. Maybe the craziest part: Max isn’t a doctor; he’s a mathematician. The magic of the diagnosis is in the algorithms.
How well this sound-based Parkinson's test works: Right now Max is fine-tuning his algorithms with the “Parkinson’s Voice Initiative." He’s collected over 17,000 voices from all over the world that he’s using to test his algorithms. In a lab, Max can predict Parkinson’s disease 99% of the time. If he can get his technology predict with the same accuracy for cell phone calls, it could revolutionize the way neurologists diagnose and treat Parkinson’s. “A practical future use of this technology could be that a neurologist has a number set up, a person can call into that number," he said. “They leave a voice recording. The algorithms would analyze that voice recording and then a neurologist can get an indication about whether or not they have Parkinson’s and the probability associated with that. And then, of course, they can get back to the patient and follow-up.”