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Sea Squirts: A Cancer Warrior Gets Some R&R


Sea squirts, which contain known anticancer substances, may soon face a lower risk of being hunted by medical researchers. Scientists have confirmed that the active anticancer compounds, called patellamides, are in fact produced by bacteria known as Prochloron didemnii, which infect the sea squirts. Nab the microbes, and there's no need to harvest the whole sea critter. Reporting in the online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers at the Institute for Genomic Research, the University of Utah, and the University of California at San Diego say they transferred the bacterial genes that produce patellamides to E. coli and can now produce the desired compounds. Unfortunately for sea squirts, scientists suspect that their unusual biochemistry may harbor other molecules and compounds of potential value to humans.

Summer's here, and what better way to celebrate than with a glass of crisp chardonnay? That is, until you open the bottle, catch a whiff of dank earth, and have to pour the contents down the drain. Some 5% of all bottled wine is "corked" by such a taint, caused by a mold found in either the cork or the wood barrels in which wine is aged.

After almost 25 years of research, biochemist G?rard Michel and oenologist Laurent Vuillaume claim to have a fix. The Burgundy-based team produced Dream Taste, a kit containing a carafe filled with a special copolymer material, formed in the shape of a bunch of grapes. When wine is poured in, the one-time-use material absorbs the mold-born molecules and restores the wine's original taste and bouquet in about an hour.

Made by wine-products company Embag, Dream Taste kits include two filters and are sold in selected French stores and by mail order for $51, with refills available for $6 apiece. Sant?!

Anyone with $125,000 to spare can own a miniature, 5-foot-long helicopter from Steadicopter in Israel, near Haifa. The chopper doesn't need a pilot, nor even a trained ground controller. Just give the craft a mission within its 6-mile, 90-minute range, and it flies itself. Using the company's proprietary software, taking off, hovering, and landing are all autonomous, says Amir Rochman, the startup's business development manager.

The copter depends on constant position checks with the global positioning system. The concept was hatched at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, and Steadicopter planned to show it off last year -- but somebody stole the first prototype.

The latest model, weighing just 30 pounds, has proven its versatility. It cruises at altitudes of a few hundred feet and carries a camera that can scan the ground in an eight-mile radius. The software can also fly larger copters on longer trips with bigger payloads. Steadicopter is marketing its craft for border surveillance, inspecting places hit by natural disasters, tracking forest fires, and traffic control.

-- Despite mankind's ancient fascination with fire, just how flames burn is still not fully understood. Now, a multi-university team has identified a new class of molecules in gas flames. Dubbed "enols," the organic compounds are close cousins of more stable molecules already known to exist in flames, and are released when gasoline products burn. The finding, published last month in Science, suggests that today's computer models of combustion are incomplete. Better understanding of the complex process of burning could lead to new ways to reduce air pollution.

-- During an asthma attack, lung passages become inflamed and breathing is obstructed. The illness afflicts some 17 million Americans, and in recent years there has been little progress finding new targets for treatment. Now Duke University researchers think they've found one -- an enzyme that breaks down GSNO, a molecule that carries nitric oxide in healthy lung tissue and that seems to be scarce in asthmatic lungs. The scientists say they have demonstrated the protective power of GSNO in mice. And they believe the hyperactivity of an enzyme that breaks it down may set the stage for asthma attacks. The next step will be to determine if a drug can safely target the hyperactive enzyme.


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