Synthesizing Our World

May 26th, 2010

Most of the media, yours truly included, was abuzz this past week about the news from the J. Craig Venter Institute that they had created a bacteria with a fully synthetic genome. Now, how far the proclamation was taken was a matter of sensationalist bent; was it “artificial life” or something less sci-fi?

In my personal opinion, which I tried to discuss a few places, it is a landmark report if only for the sheer technological know-how. The Venter Institute has proof-of-concept of various techniques working together for the first time. The bacterium they created are copies of an existing bacterium, but the copy genome was produced base by base in a dish rather than inside a living organism. Also, the copy genome was inserted into another species of bacteria whose genome had been removed (it was a shell of its previous self), and successfully took over the management of the bacterial body.

Now, the Venter Institute has generations of little baby bacteria that are the product of successful asexual bacterial reproduction (i.e. cell division) from that first synthetic generation. If they are dividing and multiplying like regular bacteria, I have to say it is a job well done. But, if they truly want to create artificial life, they are going to have to figure out how to create the bacterial body that goes with the DNA.

I’m sure scientists are already working on that problem, but in the meantime, the Venter Institute will be working with the DNA to determine what genes are necessary for life, what the minimum size limit is for a genome to run a microbe, and which genes can be added successfully to bacteria to make them do our bidding.

In addition to this very visible bacteria story, another equally interesting and potentially sci-fi scientific development hit the journal Nature this last week. Robots… little tiny robots that crawl around inside your cells to fix things are a bit closer to reality.

According to Bethany Halford of Chemical &Engineering News:

“Using DNA as the key construction material, one group of researchers created a nanoscale robot that can autonomously walk across a track, and a different group prepared a nanofactory in which DNA robots can carry and deposit nanoparticle cargo.”

The track in question will eventually be your cytoskeleton, the tiny fibers that give your cells their shape, and act as the transportation routes for cellular delivery systems. If the groups involved in these two studies can put their work together, we will have tiny machines that can carry payloads from place to place within your cells - a goal of researchers wanting very specific intracellular chemical delivery.

Also from the article:

“A goal of our field is to refashion and reimagine all the complex biochemical machinery of cells to suit our own purposes—to have synthetic molecules that can move around and carry cargo as protein motors do in cells, to have molecules that act as chemical factories, which make a particular product based on a particular chemical input, and above all to make these processes modular, to make them engineerable,” notes Paul W. K. Rothemund, the Caltech scientist who invented DNA origami.”

So, someday in the possibly not-so-distant future we may have synthetic bacteria that do our bidding in the environment, AND synthetic machines that help us live healthier lives.

Viruses Are Cool

May 25th, 2010

And, yes, they cause colds. But, when it comes down to it viruses are the sneakiest survivalists around… especially considering that they aren’t even alive.

Last Friday, I got to talk with Dr. Vincent Racaniello, Dr. Rich Condit, and Dr. Alan Dove (PhD turned science writer), virus experts the lot of them, on their show, This Week in Virology. Ostensibly, I was invited on the show to discuss my transformation from scientist grad student to scientist media person, but I was really just there for the virus science.

If you haven’t had a chance to listen to this podcast, I highly suggest giving it one. The hosts are Columbia University professors, and they eloquently discuss the finer details of the viruses that make you sick. However, it’s not a show for the scientifically faint of heart. These guys really dig into the nuts and bolts of the living dead. The conversation is fairly high level, but they do a great job of making it interesting. I found myself hanging on their words wanting to learn how the little things work.

But, I am a certified geek. I thrive on the details because to me they add nuance to the scientific story unfolding around my ears.

You will just have to see what you think for yourself. Check it out at

I’m on Justin.TV!

May 7th, 2010

So, on the prodding of my friend and old Revision3 colleague, Neha Tiwari, I started doing a live chat program on last week. It’s called the Science Chat, and that’s what I do. I answer questions and talk about science for an hour.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a live-streaming set-up that allows me to take callers and actually vocally chat. But, I am able to respond to all the people who show up and ask questions or make comments in the chat room.

I have to say that I was completely overwhelmed the first week by all the people who were really interested in asking questions about science itself, recent news items, or were just curious about the way things work. I had a hard time keeping up with the flow of the chat, but I’m not complaining at all. All the activity made for an intense hour that I think was extremely fun.

And, I think lots of people who showed up enjoyed it too. I had over 30,000 unique views that first week, and hit that mark again this week. Not too shabby for a little science show… check out the premier…

Watch live video from DrKiki on on

and the 2nd episode for yourself…

Watch live video from DrKiki on on

Anyway, I definitely have to thank all the people at for getting this started, (moderating all the unnecessary commentary in the chat room) and making it a success right out of the gate. Neha, you and the team rock! I never would have started doing this or found out about the great audience without your suggestions.

It’s been such a great experience that I’m definitely going to be chatting on a weekly basis, if not more often. I’d also love to get interesting science-y people over to my home studio to do the chat with me (I do have two microphones…). I’m sure company would make it even more fun. So, let me know if you, my science-y friend, are interested in chatting with me and the audience.

Let’s see where this thing can go…

Dr. Kiki’s Science Hour - Life, Language, and Science

May 7th, 2010

One of the books that the TWIS book club read this year was Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle by Dr. Daniel Everett of Illinois State University.

In the book, Dr. Everett tells the story of his years spent in the amazon jungle studying the language of a small tribe of Indians. There are ups and downs, thrills and spills throughout, but the most important part of the story is the language and how it changed the Dr.’s life forever.

You would be amazed at everything Dr. Everett went through in the name of science. I know I was when I read the book.

Even more amazing was getting to speak with him on the Science Hour. See for yourself…

Dr. Kiki’s Science Hour - Celebrating Women

May 6th, 2010

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Ada Lovelace, and the challenges and successes of women in science. On Ada Lovelace Day, I spoke with … from the Association for Women in Science about, yes, you guessed it… women in science.

It was a fabulous conversation, and I do believe that we did, indeed, celebrate the women in the field. And, really, I think that is the key to continued success these days. People are not responsive to whining about problems. People want to feel hopeful, to see positive role-models, be given next steps they can take themselves, and to know that their actions can make a difference.

If you are a female success in science or technology, get out there! Tell people about yourself, and don’t be afraid to do it. People want to know how you got to where you are.

Be a model for future generations of women in science by living successfully yourself.

Anyway, here is the show. Check it out: