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News,Views & Insights on Biotechnology

During one of my Expeditions on the internet, in search of some food for thought, I came across an article in the National Geographic on Mucilage.

AmoebaSounds strange, doesn’t it? That this unsavoury substance should take up the haloed space in a magazine such as NatGeo intrigued me. My curiosity did not disappoint me and I am sure those of you who share this trait with me will not be either. So, here goes. The article I was referring to deals with a rise in Marine Mucilage in the Adriatic Sea. This is an extension of the Mediterranean Sea, and it separates the Italian and Balkan peninsulas. Now, what is this Marine Mucilage? Like all problems this one too, starts out small. In the oceans and seas across the world, tiny aggregates of colloidal matter are known to form and have been given the rather poetic appellation of “Marine Snow”. These aggregates are mostly detritus that coalesce to form snowy particles and then settle down in a column of water.

Marine Mucilage in the Adriatic Sea

Marine Mucilage in the Adriatic Sea

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This year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to three scientists who were instrumental in solving one of the enigmas of DNA replication, namely the problem of Replication of the entire Chromosome and prevention of degradation. The Nobel committee at Karolinska Institutet decided to jointly award the 2009 Nobel prize to Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Carol W. Greider and Jack W. Szostak for their Discovery of “how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase1

Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn
Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn

Now, what are these Telomeres? They are nothing but the special cap like structures at the ends of our tightly packed chromosomes. Elizabeth B. And Jack S. Discovered that special sequences in these telomeres prevented the degradation of chromosomes while they were being replicated. It followed very logically then, that if there are telomeres then there must be definitely some enzyme responsible for their synthesis. Working on this premise, Elizabeth B. and Carol G went to identify the unique enzyme, Telomerase.

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Peptide Nucleic Acid

dnaWhat is a Peptide Nucleic Acid? The name is self suggestive. One can easily deduce that the molecule must be a combination of a peptide and a nucleic acid.Well, for all practical purposes that is exactly what it is. A Peptide Nucleic Acid or a PNA is a synthetic molecule that is a nucleic acid analogue or a structural mimic. A natural nucleic acid (DNA or RNA) has a sugar phosphate backbone linking together the nucleotide bases. In a PNA, the nucleotides are retained, but the charged Sugar phosphate bridges are replaced with a synthetic peptide backbone that is usually composed of N-(2-amin-ethyl)-glycine units. This modification yields an uncharged and a chiral molecule, which follows the rules of the Watson and Crick base pairing as faithfully as its Nucleic acid cousin. In addition, PNA now becomes resistant to enzymatic degradation and exhibits increased thermal and ionic tolerance. Now, the PNA due to its unique structural features can recognise DNA and RNA in a sequence-specific manner. Also what is most interesting is that it recognises duplex DNA, and binds to it by strand invasion forming a triplex PNA-DNA-PNA.This form is extremely stable. Any student of Biotechnology would have by now grasped the immense significance of this molecule with respect to its Pharmacological and Diagnostic abilities. It is the tremendous versatility and the potential of this molecule that brings it into focus in this week’s Cutting Edge.

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The MicroKit AIO

One of the most critical aspects of modern medical practice is Accurate, Definitive and Quick diagnosis of a disease. The medical fraternity is increasingly relying upon technology for diagnosing a wide repertoire of diseases, ranging from Cancers to Viral Flu and HIV. Any invention that is able to combine the powerful sequencing and PCR techniques with rapid Analysis and comparison software will be an added tool for Doctors.

One such invention is the MicroKit AIO, that is expected to enter the Markets in the year 2010. The product, which will be launched by Dynamed, is being dubbed as the “lab-in-the-cartridge”. Dyamed will set up a spin-off company to develop and produce a range of new diagnostic products as part of its agreement with Exploit Technologies Pte Ltd (ETPL), the commercialization arm of Singapore’s A*STAR  (Agency for Science, Technology and Research).

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Intuition will tell the thinking mind where to look next.

JONAS SALK


Everyone, or almost everyone, has heard about the Human genome project. It is probably the most talked about and the most ambitious of all recent projects in the discipline of genetics and human health. The project was a grand scale effort on the part of researchers to decipher the code of life by sequencing the genome of Homo sapiens. They used state –of- the – art technology and modern tools of bioinformatics to obtain and analyse the intricate pattern of genes in our genome. One of the key objectives of the HGP was to study variations in the patterns of genes in healthy and diseased individuals. The expected divergence in the genes of diseased individuals would then provide researchers with possible study areas and would guide them towards more accurate diagnostic and treatment methods. Therefore to put it in simple terms an attempt was made to study the sequence of our genes in order to correlate them to phenotypic effects such as diseases and hence to develop better drugs and improve the standard of human life.

A similar attempt is currently underway on a global scale, though this one is much more interesting. The project being referred to here is the Human Microbiome Project. Now, what exactly is meant by the term microbiome? A microbiome can be defined in the most simple terms as the sum total of all the Microbial flora that reside on or in the human body along with their genomes. The human microbiome project is an attempt to study the enormous diversity of microbes associated with the body, and to obtain sequence data of the same. The idea is to connect changes in the populations of the microbes with altered states of health. It is a mind boggling idea considering that the human body is home to trillions of different microbes. The very idea of obtaining such vast amounts of data and then deciphering it to obtain meaningful connections to specific diseases is awe inspiring. And yet, this is exactly what researchers in institutes across the world have decided to do, under the Aegis of the National Institutes of Health or the NIH. What is even more remarkable is that a few of the preliminary reports in the field have shown definitive connections between altered microbial populations in the body and the onset and development of diseases of various organ systems.

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