Wired Magazine's Top 10 New Organisms of 2007

As many of you might have noticed, Benny and I have been off for the week for Christmas in San Francisco. The plan was to visit the Zoo on Wednesday, which obviously did not happen, so we checked out the Monterey Bay Aquarium for a twelfth time. Anyway, our apologies for the lack of posts. We will pick up next week but we leave you with this piece, directly lifted from this Wired article.

Genetic engineering isn't just for scientists in ivory towers or corporate R&D labs anymore. Researchers are still creating new mice and crops every week, but the tools and knowledge necessary to create organisms never before seen on Earth have pushed out to pet breeders, artists and college kids.

A Wired News first, here we count down the top 10 organisms that didn't exist on Dec. 31, 2006.

1. Ashera GD hypoallergenic cat

Lifestyle Pets has created a cat it calls the Ashera GD, which has been genetically engineered to be hypoallergenic. The high-tech blend of exotic cat varieties doesn't come cheap: This kitty in the window retails for $27,000 -- nothing to sneeze at. The ultra-rich around the world, however, don't mind the price tag. Six of the cats sold in December, three of them in the company's best market: Russia. Next year, expect a transgenic cat, which will remain kitten-size throughout its life.

2. Butanol-producing E. coli

Genetic engineering is getting so easy, even a kid can do it. A team of students from the University of Alberta, "the Butanerds," competed in the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition, creating an E. coli strain that produces butanol fuel (albeit rather inefficiently). The Butanerds have competition from a host of well-funded startups, like Synthetic Genomics and LS9, which are trying to genetically modify single-celled organisms to create the fuels of the future.

3. Artful fluorescent tadpoles

At an Ohio State art show earlier this year, Russian artist Dmitry Bulatov presented his genetically engineered tadpoles, which glow red and green. Bulatov, the curator of the Kaliningrad Branch of the National Centre for Contemporary Art in Russia, is one of a handful of artists around the world using biotechnology to create art. The field is controversial, because it involves experimenting with living things without a medical or therapeutic purpose. Bulatov edited a collection of essays on these issues called Biomediale: Contemporary Society and Genomic Culture.

4. Insulin-producing lettuce

In July, a University of Central Florida researcher... (more below the fold)

announced he had genetically modified lettuce heads that produce insulin. They could be transformed into time-release capsules for people with diabetes, to help them maintain blood-sugar levels without regular injections.

5. Super CO2-absorbing trees

With global warming all over the news in 2007, many schemes have been proposed for taking greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. Trees already do the world an admirable service sequestering carbon dioxide, but scientists at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee are also genetically modifying poplar trees to increase the amount of carbon that the trees can store.

6. Rapid vaccine-making button mushrooms

In November, Darpa-funded Pennsylvania State University researchers unveiled a new method for rapidly producing vaccines: genetically engineered button mushrooms. Pharming, using plants as chemical factories, is beginning to catch on as a cheap way to synthesize drugs. Within a few years, the Penn State scientists say their 'shrooms will be able to make 3 million doses of vaccine in 12 weeks. Rapid-response vaccine-making could come in handy in case of a bioterror attack or bird-flu outbreak.

i-19290a27601c721821dac5596043c903-glow in the dark cats.jpg
Above: A special filter in a dark room shows a cat (left) with a red fluorescent protein that makes it glow when exposed to ultraviolet rays, next to a normal cloned cat (right) at Gyeongsang National University in Jinju, South Korea.
Below: In normal light, a normal cloned cat (left) stands next to two cats which have been cloned to glow red, but only in ultraviolet. Photo credit: AP / Yonhap, Choi Byung-kil.

7. Glow-in-the-dark cats

Photographs of cats genetically engineered by South Korean scientists to glow red when exposed to UV light made headlines around the world. What most news stories didn't mention was the scientific potential for fluorescent creatures: The animals' glow acts as a "green light" that lets scientists know that their genetic transformations of other, non-glowing genes have worked.

8. Cancer-fighting Clostridium bacteria

Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatment mean that a cancer diagnosis is no longer always a death sentence. But certain oxygen-starved parts of tumors are still difficult to reach with the old methods. Enter the Clostridium family of bacteria. Injected into the body, they grow and multiply only in the oxygen-poor parts of cancer tumors. In September, scientists in the Netherlands showed they could arm Clostridium bacteria with therapeutic protein genes, essentially creating search-and-destroy tumor missiles.

9. Schizophrenic mice

July's news that Johns Hopkins researchers had created schizophrenic mice was a surprise, even to scientists who regularly create genetically altered mice to model human diseases. In recent years, we've seen very big mice, fearless mice, Rain Man mice and a host of others. But the schizophrenic experience of hallucinations, delusions of grandeur and paranoia seemed somehow distinctly human. However, scientists recently identified a single gene called DISC1 as a major schizophrenia risk factor, leading to the creation of these mice, which lack the gene. Anatomical examinations revealed similarities between the mice's brains and those of human patients. The mice also revealed behaviors -- trouble finding food, agitation in open fields -- that researchers say parallel human schizophrenic activities.

10. Yeast with poison-sensing rat genes

Temple University doctors announced in May that they'd genetically modified a strain of yeast to glow green in the presence of DNT, an ingredient in dynamite. The scientists used rat olfactory genes to sense the chemical and switch on fluorescent-protein producing genes. Biosensors might be better than man-made sensors for applications like detecting nerve gas, because they are cheap to produce.

Thanks to NK and others for sending along.


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Holy crap! UCF is my alma mater! Finally, they're in the news for osmething other than hazing accidents and meth lab raids. Yayyyy!!!

Hurrah! I just can't wait for the alternative fuel and I love the idea of E coli powered cars. What would happen if the butanol-producing e-coli got into your gut? Help! My imagination won't cope with it . . .

By Mrs Hilary Vic… (not verified) on 28 Dec 2007 #permalink

Alternative fuel and fermentation: we have that, it is called ethanol.

Please remember that unless these microbes have active photosynthesis going (in which case you need to feed them a large amount of light and CO2) you have to provide them with a carbon source - such as starch or molasse. If you can convince your microbes to eat woodchips or coal dust rather than corn, it gets cheaper but it still has to compete with processes that take the same carbon source and converts it into fuel by non-biological means.

Also fermentation means lots of emissions of smog-producing volatile small-molecule organic chemicals and it produces vats of smelly slurry that has to be taken care of. In my opinion fermentation is good for producing complicated chemicals (antibiotics for example), the chemical transformation that have great added value (say 50 USD per pound) but it is too cumbersome and wasteful for making fuels. Sure, one can take advantage of fermentation happening naturally - for example heating gas produced in landfils - but nobody is building landfils just to produce heating gas.

I'm so NOT downing the post but I'm not at all surprised by which animals made the list for "Wired."

We're not exactly talking about "Nature," or a Zoological journal. I'll admit that having worked with e.coli back in the undergrad days, it would be interesting to see what they could do on the fuel-front. :)

milkshake makes a very good point about overall carbon consumption. Some algae actually look like a much better producer of ethanol in the long run. Not to mention the fact that there are plants the thrive on "waste," land (over alkalinized/ dried/nutrient less - due to poor agricultural practices) and produce an oil that is almost Bio diesel without processing.

Thanks for the list guys, very interesting!

By arachnophile (not verified) on 29 Dec 2007 #permalink

free printed guides to local organizations that support the cause and have a means to distribute them. If you have a local zoo, aquarium, nature center or similar organization