Tag Archives: biotechnology

Give the Gift of Science, Donate Blood Today!

Our cells are regularly bombarded with bouts of DNA damage. Typical rates for double strand breakage, for example, are ten instances per day. While our excellent DNA repair machinery usually maintains the fidelity of our genetic code, this system is not infallible. A number of health problems, including cancer, immunological disorders, and premature aging, have been attributed to mutations and sustained damage. The propensity for unhealthy DNA is largely influenced by genetics, environment, and lifestyle; however, the ways in which these factors affect levels of DNA damage remains an active area of study.

In order to better understand what contributes to the health of our DNA, samples from a huge number of specimens need to be recovered and assessed. Until recently, damage was measured by looking at cells under a fluorescent microscope and manually counting DNA breaks. This approach is not only cumbersome and error prone, but ill-equipped for the purposes of large-scale sampling. However, Berkeley Lab scientist Dr. Sylvain Costes has found a way around this problem. He was able to write an algorithm to automate this process by having a machine scan samples and objectively count DNA breaks. Costes technique was so successful that he decided to launch a biotech startup in 2012, along with colleague Dr. Jonathon Tang, to make this technology available to the public.

Slippery and Slick

Carnivorous pitcher plants are one inspiration for super-hydrophobic surfaces

The integration of engineered hydrophobic surfaces in everyday life is all around us: Teflon cookware in the kitchen, Rain-X in windshield wipers, and NanoDrop at the bench (hint: the sample pedestal coating). Unfortunately, there is much to be desired regarding the attributes of even the best industrially marketed treatments. One major challenge is that many of these surfaces have poor anti-fouling properties, are not optically transparent, and do not repel low-temperature and oily liquids. This technological dearth has broad impacts, from the medical industry to aeronautics. While it may seem like the Gore-Tex on your winter jacket is working just fine, there are a series of demanding applications that require an extra level of resilience to bacterial films. For instance, bacterial infections from medical catheters remain a leading cause of complications for chemotherapy patients due to tubes that provide insufficient protection from bacterial growth.

Last week in Nature,  the Varanasi group at MIT reported a new superhydrophobic material that has the potential to make surfaces drier than ever before. The scientists at MIT were inspired by the microscopic ridges present in the leaves of the the nasturtium plant to develop a robust superhydrophobic mesh that is capable of quickly repelling water and even molten metal. Read on to explore the world of wettability and the remarkable biology that inspire these technologies.

Make Awesome: the story of elastic electronic skin

Of the five senses, touch is the most widely distributed throughout the body, and perhaps the most fundamental. A single fingertip has over 2500 touch receptors, which sense and transmit enough information to allow us to discriminate spatial distances as small as 40 micrometers (Tee, et al, 2013). Receptors distributed throughout our hands can sense extremely gentle pressures of around 100 pascals (equivalent to the feeling of a penny resting on a fingertip) as well as pressures of greater than 100 kilopascals (the feeling of gripping an object very tightly). Having such a wide range of sensitivities allows us to perform extremely delicate tasks, such as flipping the pages of a textbook, or pipetting primers into tiny PCR tubes.

From a materials engineering point of view, human skin is nature’s version of an elastomer-based pressure sensor, or, in layman’s terms, an extremely flexible material that is able to feel when it’s being pushed on, pulled, flexed or grazed. For many years, recreating the features of human skin by artificial means eluded researchers. Recently, however, several labs have made enormous strides in recreating the properties of human skin electronically. Over the past decade, Prof. Ali Javey and colleagues at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory developed a number of plastic- and rubber-based electronic skin prototypes. Meanwhile, in the laboratory of Prof. Zhenan Bao at Stanford University, graduate student Benjamin Tee helped develop two types of flexible electronic skin, including one that is able to repair itself after being damaged.

skinThe first prototype developed in the Bao laboratory relies on capacitors to detect changes in pressure and flexible organic transistors to amplify and relay signals emitted by the capacitors in a system known as a capacitive pressure sensor. This system is likely familiar to you, because a form of capacitive sensing is used in touch screens for smartphones and tablet computers. The basic building block of capacitive sensing systems are capacitors, devices that are used to temporarily store electrical energy. Though there are several types of capacitors, all contain at least two electrical conductors—usually metal plates—separated by a non-conductive insulator known as a dielectric. When current flows through a circuit and hits the capacitor, a difference in electrical potential is created between the capacitor’s plates, causing positive charge to collect on one plate and negative charge on the other. This in turn causes an electrical field to develop across the dielectric. The electrical field that is created can remain in the capacitor even if the current ceases to flow through the circuit. In this way, energy can be stored by the capacitor in the form of a static voltage spanning the conductors. When stored energy is released, the resulting current can be picked up by devices called transistors and amplified into a readable output current that is much stronger than the input current.

Piper Promotes: QB3 Award for Innovation Ceremony, Thursday, October 18, 2012

On Thursday, October 18, 2012 from 4:00 to 5:15 pm, the Awards for Innovation, sponsored by Deloitte and QB3 will be presented. The Awards for Innovation go to the student, post-doc, staff scientist or team from UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, or UC San Francisco that has made the greatest innovation in the area of human health.

The five finalists have been chosen and you can see videos of them on the QB3 Youtube channel. The finalists were chosen by judges from industry, venture capital, and academia. The winners are being chosen by UC students, faculty and staff. You can make your vote for a winner on the QB3 Facebook Page.

The ceremony will include five-minute talks by each of the five finalists, a keynote with Steve Beckwith, Vice-President for Research and Graduate Studies at the University of California, Office of the President, and the award presentation by Matthew Hudes, the U.S. Managing Principal for Biotechnology at Deloitte.  A reception will follow the ceremony. Registration is free and available here.