Craig Venter and ExxonMobil join hands in biofuel venture

In these days we all know that regular gas is no more a cheaper ingredient in our lives. Not just the price of the gas in terms of per gallon, but the cost we cannot pay in terms of global warming and melting ice caps. Almost all of the Universities around the world are concentrating on how to make cheaper biofuel. I know that most of the post docs from my circle are working in biofuel related research. There are many alternatives in coming up with good quality biofuel, but petroleum giant Exxonmobil has decided to go with algea. This is the first time that such a big company is investing in biofuels.

Why is that I am writing about it here? Obviously biofuel is my interest, but this is not the right place to talk about it. The reason for mentioning about it here is due to involvement of one of the biggest institutes in human genomics research, The Craig Venter's company, Synthetic Genomics (SGI), is helping ExxonMobil in developing algae based biofuels. In this $600 million contract,SGI
will develop fuels for cars and planes without a need for engine modifications. The scientific team will be testing different cocktails as they are developed at the new facility that will be built in San Diego that includes ponds and bioreactors for the algae to grow. We will be seeing more companies of this type that will follow the suit of biofuels in the coming future.

Pathway genomics joins the list of personal genetics

Once again, a new DTC (Direct To Consumer) company for personal genetics, Pathway Genomics joined the list of the big companies that are after our genes, in a educational way, if not commercial, as it is said by some big scientists. Comaring to the already existing 23andme and Navigenics, Pathway genomics charge its customers $249 for health test. In addition to this, it will also does genotyping for some risk factors such as markers for over 90 diseases, drug responses. The company is also offering ancestry test for $199 however individuals can get the combo for $348. Pathway Genomics promises affordable tests that can be availed by all people. I hope that is really true and help people by providing cheaper tests. On the contrary, people might get freaked out by knowing their risks which Pathway Genomics promises to help through its counseling service. Well, goodluck Pathway Genomics.

Electricity and refrigeration not essential for DNA purification

Extracting DNA has never been so easy as it is with the new SNAP (System for Nucleic Acid Preparation), designed by Boston University professor Catherine Klapperich. This small device, built on simple technique, using cheap inputs can help in purifying DNA from all kinds of body fluids, including blood. One just needs to run the blood through polymer-lined straw where in the DNA is trapped which then can be mailed to the lab for further anlysis.

This new device has lot of potential in poor countries and other rural communities that would not only save money, but time too. Usually, the samples sent to the labs for DNA are very sensitive if not stored at freezing temperatures. In mnay cases, the DNA gets degraded by the time they reach labs for extraction. In this case, this device helps that degradation problems as they will be more stable once extracted and then sent to the labs.

The DNA is more stable once extracted than in the sample. This is due to many chemicals in the sample that degrade the quality and quantity of DNA. In reality, DNA is more stable than does the RNA. So, this device could save us from lots of hurdles in testing people for diseases such as AIDS and other easily transmitted diseases.

To understand how the DNA is extracted from blood, read this small description here, provided by Technology Review at MIT.

The conventional method of extracting DNA from blood involves a number of instruments: researchers first break open blood cell walls, either with chemicals or by shaking the blood, in order to get at genetic material inside cells. They then add a detergent to wash away the fatty cell walls, and spin the DNA out of solution with a centrifuge. The SNAP prototype performs a similar series of events with a bicycle pump, some simple chemicals, and a specialized straw lined with a polymer designed to attract and bind DNA.

A clinician first takes a fluid sample, such as blood or saliva from a patient, and injects it into the disposable straw within the device. A large cap on the device contains two small packets: a lysis buffer and an ethanol wash. Pressure from the pump releases the lysis buffer, which breaks open cells in the fluid, releasing DNA. A second pump of air releases ethanol, which washes out everything but the DNA.

At this point, this device is used to test only some fluids such as nasal. Once its tested for other fluids, it will have more applicability. One problem with this at this stage is that the total DNA obtained is less in quantity, but exceptionally good in quality. And small quantities were never a problem after the innovative polymerase chain reaction, invented by kary Mullis.

For now, lets hope that this new device will take the world by storm. Kudos to Dr. Klapperich and his students at Boston University.

Personal genetics company 23andme is taking it further

The personal genetics start up company 23andme is taking a step further in getting into peoples mind. After advertising on web space through its parent company Google(One of the investor in this company is wife of Google's co-owner), its now looking into new avenues to get the word out to the public to get their genes tested for disease risks.

One can only imagine the extent of competition in this growing field of personal genetics. As a population geneticist, working for one of the molecular biology companies, I can see so many companies coming up in no time that are investing in personal genetics. Some of them made good impression, while others have not lasted long like Geneessence. One of the new ones being Pathway Genomics. Now other successful or atleast in the business being Navigenics and decodeme. Knome is another start up that looks into more details than the other ones mentioned earlier.

Well, there are many coming up and I will let you know one that is coming up in south, probably the first one. I will have to talk about it in future, few months from now. For now, 23andme is the prime interest as its Google owned or partly owned company that is trying to get into people like Google site. However, its a different ball game here as its life sciences and there are many amazing people in this world who knows more than the people at 23andme. So, to cope up with the growing competition and sprouting personal genomics companies, they have to come up with some innovative ideas as this one that has made some interesting news today, as written by none other than Michael Arrington of TechCrunch.

I hope that this stunt would help 23andm3 to get the attention it needs to make itself a better "bioinformatics service" and need no license to operate in California. Obviously only a better service and unambiguous results can help get more people get their genome tested for their risks of prominent diseases. Until then, we need to be cautious in predicting the results and making life changing decisions as the results are not always correct and dependable, as mentioned by Dave Rigotti "I’ve spoken with a geneticist (PhD from Harvard) about 23andMe and the information the tests provided. He said, in short, that the data is pretty much useless to an individual and that most factors contributing to a disease are environmental. However, he said that on a very large scale the mapping of the genes could provide valuable research."

One should not just spend money on these tests to know their risks, but should spend time exercising. May be one needs to spend that money on gym to get fit than just knowing the risks and worrying about it.