Living artificial leaves: Solar panel-covered ‘cyborg’ bacteria to generate the renewable fuels of the future

Scientists have developed so-called ‘cyborg’ bacteria that mimic the natural photosynthesis of leaves to renewably generate food, fuels and plastics using only sunlight.

The bacteria, which are covered in minute semiconductors that serve as tiny solar panels, function in much the same way as natural leaves, but in a far more efficient manner.

“Rather than rely on inefficient chlorophyll to harvest sunlight, I’ve taught bacteria how to grow and cover their bodies with tiny semiconductor nanocrystals,” explained Dr Kelsey K Sakimoto, who undertook the research in Dr Peidong Yang’s lab at the University of California, Berkeley. “These nanocrystals are much more efficient than chlorophyll and can be grown at a fraction of the cost of manufactured solar panels.”

The research, which is being presented today at the 254th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society has the potential to be developed into a valuable alternative to fossil fuels.

“Once covered with these tiny solar panels, the bacteria can synthesize food, fuels and plastics, all using solar energy,” said Sakimoto. “These bacteria outperform natural photosynthesis.”

The research involved taking a natural bacterium, Moorella thermoacetica, which is not conventionally capable of photosynthesis, and feeding it chemicals that it synthesised to augment its capabilities.

As the bacterium naturally produces acetic acid from CO₂, introducing other genetically engineered bacteria can enable it to produce fuels, polymers and even pharmaceuticals. In this case, Sakimoto fed it both cadmium and cysteine, an animo acid that contains sulphur, causing the bacteria to synthesis cadmium sulphide nanoparticles on its surface: the tiny solar panels that allow it to beat leaves in photosynthesising.

“The thrust of research in my lab is to essentially ‘supercharge’ nonphotosynthetic bacteria by providing them energy in the form of electrons from inorganic semiconductors, like cadmium sulfide, that are efficient light absorbers,” explained Dr Peidong Yang. “We are now looking for more benign light absorbers than cadmium sulfide to provide bacteria with energy from light.”

Image courtesy of Kelsey K Sakimoto

While the bacteria has only been developed in a lab setting, with an 80% efficiency, if it can be developed into a commercial product, it has the potential to be a hugely impactful technology in the transition away from fossil fuels.

“Synthetic biology and the ability to expand the product scope of CO₂ reduction will be crucial to poising this technology as a replacement, or one of many replacements, for the petrochemical industry,” said Sakimoto.

Other research has been previously undertaken to produce artificial leaves, which many hope could be used to form future decentralised power plants, however this research offers a significant improvement that could give it a much higher chance of being commercialised.

“Many current systems in artificial photosynthesis require solid electrodes, which is a huge cost,” explained Sakimoto. “Our algal biofuels are much more attractive, as the whole CO₂-to-chemical apparatus is self-contained and only requires a big vat out in the sun.”

Scientists, software developers and artists have begun using VR to visualise genes and predict disease

A group of scientists, software developers and artists have taken to using virtual reality (VR) technology to visualise complex interactions between genes and their regulatory elements.

The team, which comprises of members from Oxford University, Universita’ di Napoli and Goldsmiths, University of London, have been using VR to visualise simulations of a composite of data from genome sequencing, data on the interactions of DNA and microscopy data.

When all this data is combined the team are provided with an interactive, 3D image that shows where different regions of the genome sit relative to others, and how they interact with each other.

“Being able to visualise such data is important because the human brain is very good at pattern recognition – we tend to think visually,” said Stephen Taylor, head of the Computational Biology Research Group at Oxford’s MRC Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine (WIMM).

“It began at a conference back in 2014 when we saw a demonstration by researchers from Goldsmiths who had used software called CSynth to model proteins in three dimensions. We began working with them, feeding in seemingly incomprehensible information derived from our studies of the human alpha globin gene cluster and we were amazed that what we saw on the screen was an instantly recognisable model.”

The team believe that being able to visualise the interactions between genes and their regulatory elements will allow them to understand the basis of human genetic diseases, and are currently applying their techniques to study genetic diseases such as diabetes, cancer and multiple sclerosis.

“Our ultimate aim in this area is to correct the faulty gene or its regulatory elements and be able to re-introduce the corrected cells into a patient’s bone marrow: to perfect this we have to fully understand how genes and their regulatory elements interact with one another” said Professor Doug Higgs, a principal researcher at the WIMM.

“Having virtual reality tools like this will enable researchers to efficiently combine their data to gain a much broader understanding of how the organisation of the genome affects gene expression, and how mutations and variants affect such interactions.”

There are around 37 trillion cells in the average adult human body, and each cell contains two meters of DNA tightly packed into its nucleus.

While the technology to sequence genomes is well established, it has been shown that the manner in which DNA is folded within each cell affects how genes are expressed.

“There are more than three billion base pairs in the human genome, and a change in just one of these can cause a problem. As a model we’ve been looking at the human alpha globin gene cluster to understand how variants in genes and their regulatory elements may cause human genetic disease,” said Prof Jim Hughes, associate professor of Genome Biology at Oxford University.

Using CRISPR, UK scientists edit DNA of human embryos

For the first time in the UK, scientists have altered human embryos. Using the gene-editing tool CRISPR, the scientists turned off the protein OCT4, which is thought to be important in early embryo development. In doing so, cells that normally go on to form the placenta, yolk sac and foetus failed to develop.

Source: BBC

Tesla and AMD developing AI chip for self-driving cars

Tesla has partnered with AMD to develop a dedicated chip that will handle autonomous driving tasks in its cars. Tesla's Autopilot programme is currently headed by former AMD chip architect Jim Keller, and it is said that more than 50 people are working on the initiative under his leadership.

Source: CNBC

Synthetic muscle developed that can lift 1,000 times its own weight

Scientists have used a 3D printing technique to create an artificial muscle that can lift 1,000 times its own weight. "It can push, pull, bend, twist, and lift weight. It's the closest artificial material equivalent we have to a natural muscle," said Dr Aslan Miriyev, from the Creative Machines lab.

Source: Telegraph

Head of AI at Google criticises "AI apocalypse" scaremongering

John Giannandrea, the senior vice president of engineering at Google, has condemned AI scaremongering, promoted by people like Elon Musk ."I just object to the hype and the sort of sound bites that some people have been making," said Giannandrea."I am definitely not worried about the AI apocalypse."

Source: CNBC

Scientists engineer antibody that attacks 99% of HIV strains

Scientists have engineered an antibody that attacks 99% of HIV strains and is built to attack three critical parts of the virus, which makes it harder for the HIV virus to resist its effects. The International Aids Society said it was an "exciting breakthrough". Human trials will begin in 2018.

Source: BBC

Facebook has a plan to stop fake news from influencing elections

Mark Zuckerberg has outlined nine steps that Facebook will take to "protect election integrity". “I care deeply about the democratic process and protecting its integrity," he said during a live broadcast on his Facebook page. "I don’t want anyone to use our tools to undermine our democracy.”