March 7, 2013, 2:21 pm
If there’s a point that may be lost in my recent take on synthetic biology, published this week in The Chronicle Review, it’s this: Once you get past the inflated rhetoric, synthetic biology still oozes a revolutionary vibe.
Last year, when I visited the lab of Jim Collins, one of the field’s founders, his team was coming off the creation of a plug-and-play “breadboarding” system for microbes. It’s an idea inspired by electrical engineering, where plastic “breadboards” serve as experimental bases for tweaking circuits without the permanence of soldering. Collins’s method allows much the same, but in bacteria.
There are plenty of tools around for inserting bits of DNA into bugs with some precision. But given the messiness of life, things rarely work out right the first time around. The team’s method makes pulling biological parts out of the DNA much easier, said Raffi B. Afeyan, an …
March 6, 2013, 3:48 pm
In any science, it’s hard to talk to the outside world without resorting to metaphor and analogy. That is especially true for the nascent field of synthetic biology, which promises to apply the ideas of engineering to life, as I detail this week in The Chronicle Review. At some level, really, synthetic biology is nothing but an extended metaphor.
Yet such metaphors, designed to convey complex science to the public, could be why the expectations of synthetic biology have gone so far beyond its capabilities. By “debiologizing” the work, the metaphors of computing and Lego bricks suggest an advanced understanding of the function, reliability, and purpose of living organisms that is often at odds with what’s known in biology. At least, that’s the case made by Eleonore Pauwels, a research scholar who has studied synthetic biology for the past few years at the Woodrow Wilson International…
February 26, 2013, 11:14 am
The Soufrière Hills eruption in Montserrat in 1995
Scientific outlines of global warming have remained relatively unchanged for decades. Climate scientists, however, armed with better satellites and long-term data, continue to refine their understanding of the jogs up and down that typify the planet’s surface temperature, which can remain flat for years at a time before rising again. There are many pieces to this puzzle, and for more than a decade, one mystery has been centered high in the sky, in the freezing stratosphere.
Given its height, many miles above sea level, the stratosphere is typically a barren place. Suspended above the weather, this dry atmospheric layer rarely houses anything more tangible than gases. Occasionally a vast volcanic eruption—like Mount Pinatubo, in 1991—might inject a load of…
February 20, 2013, 1:33 pm
Ancient rice paddies released significant amounts of methane into the atmosphere, but scientists disagree on whether they helped trigger a change in climate.
When did the Epoch of Man begin?
In recent years, it’s become common to hear that the earth has entered the Anthropocene, a new geological time dominated by humanity. The term, very much a meme, unifies a host of environmental concerns—climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution. It’s so influential that the body governing geological time is now studying, as I detailed last year, whether to consider the Anthropocene as a formal epoch—like the Pleistocene or Miocene—to the chagrin of some stratigraphers, the fastidious adherents to the discipline that judges such things.
If we are to enter a new epoch, though, geologists will have to decide when…
January 11, 2013, 2:45 pm
The federal government reported on Friday that this year’s influenza vaccine appears to be cutting the risk of getting sick by about 62 percent.
That rate is about on par with vaccine-effectiveness rates in recent years, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a weekly report describing epidemic levels of flu across the entire country.
The vaccine may not be perfect, but overall numbers show that it is working, the CDC and other experts said.
“It’s not a great vaccine in terms of preventing infection, or even mild to moderate symptoms,” said Paul A. Offit, a professor of vaccinology at the University of Pennsylvania. But, Dr. Offit said, “the goal is to keep people out of the hospital and out of the morgue, and I think this vaccine does that.”
Other researchers, however, have been sending a different message. A group led by Michael T. Osterholm…