Newsletter Digest: Synthetic cells, troubled teens and Interphone

Synthetic biology breakthrough

Geneticist Dr Craig Venter was integral to the sequencing of the human genome. Now he claims to have made a breakthrough in his long-running bid to create synthetically generated cells – essentially, artificial life.

The aim, he says, is to develop organisms designed with chemical, industrial even medical purposes in mind, an industrial revolution underpinned by biology.

He and his colleagues have published in Science this week details of a method that involved synthesizing an entire bacterial genome and using it to take over a cell.

Here’s what New Zealand scientists and experts from the UK made of this development.

More coverage on Sciblogs too from Peter Griffin and Grant Jacobs.

Defusing the ‘powderkeg’ of youth

With TV news this week carrying images of binge drinking adolescents and police breaking up school ball afterparties, Sir Peter Gluckman’s paper on the risky behavour of youths couldn’t have been more timely.

The Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister had been asked to look into troubling trends in adolescent behaviour before the recent deaths of two Kings College students in separate incidents of youthful excess gone terribly wrong.

In his paper Sir Peter suggests that improving health and nutrition mean youth now mature fast: at 11 – 13 years of age, five years earlier than they did 200 years ago. The problem is that brains mature between the ages of 20 and 30, with the area of the brain responsible for impulse control and judgement the last to mature.

Writes Sir Peter: “The increased rate of sexual maturation has its origins in better maternal and child health and nutrition, and is a sign of a physically healthy population. It has, however, created an ever-widening gap between the biological transition to adolescence and other aspects of an individual’s development.”

Scientists have endorsed his view:

“There is a wealth of data describing risk-taking behaviour in adolescents, and in recent years we have begun to understand why this behaviour occurs in terms of brain development,” University of Otago Psychology Department head Professor David Bilkey told the Otago Daily Times.

“That is, the decision-making mechanisms of young adults are not fully developed until they are in their 20s.”

A report to the Government on the issue is being prepared by Sir Peter with the help of experts and will completed in the next few months.

Mobiles safe, but Interphone puzzles

The long-awaited results of the decade-long Interphone study into whether mobile phone use increases risk of brain cancer was released this week – slightly ahead of schedule as UK media broke the embargo on the research.

The results suggest mobile phones are safe to use for the average phone user, though the research indicated a higher risk of developing common forms of brain tumors for those considered heavy users of mobile phones.

A panel of New Zealand scientists, including contributors to the New Zealand component of Interphone presented the findings in a Science Media Centre briefing this week.

The SMC also created high-resolution infographics showing where mobile phones sit on the electromagnetic frequency spectrum. Media can log into the SMC Resource Library to download the infographics for publication.