Genetically Modified Algae Could Be Key to Tomorrow’s Bio Solar Cells

Algae Fuel

Researchers at the University of Cambridge have developed a new fuel cell that is powered by algae, and that is five times more efficient than existing models that use microscopic plants and algae. This new design is not only more efficient, it is also more cost-effective and practical to use than previous attempts.

These algae-powered fuel cells, described in the journal Nature Energy, are a type of biophotovoltaic (BPV) device, also known as bio solar cells. BPVs harvest solar energy and convert it into electric current using the photosynthetic abilities of microorganisms like algae. This is both an environmentally-friendly and cost-effective alternative energy source.

The green algae Glaucocystis sp., similar to that used by researchers in developing these bio solar cells
The algae Glaucocystis sp. Image Credit: Wikipedia.

The Cambridge team’s version utilized genetically modified algae that works more efficiently than normal, minimizing the amount of electricity that is dissipated without use during photosynthesis.

Additionally, in prior versions of BPVs, charging (light harvesting and electron generation) and energy delivery (transfer to the electrical circuit) have been located within the same compartment. In systems where this is true, electrons generate current right where they’ve been secreted. In this new approach, the researchers developed a two-compartment system where the processes of charging and delivery are separated.

Green Energy

“Charging and power delivery often have conflicting requirements,” explained Kadi Liis Saar, of the University of Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry, in a press release. “For example, the charging unit needs to be exposed to sunlight to allow efficient charging, whereas the power delivery part does not require exposure to light but should be effective at converting the electrons to current with minimal losses.” 

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This design enhances performance and allows for storage, so that energy created during the day could be saved and used at night or on cloudy days. Cells that lack such storage capacity would not be as practical for widespread, commercial use.

At the present, these bio solar cells are not yet powerful enough for significant use; though their energy density of 0.5 Watts per square meter quintuples other algal cells, it’s still only a tenth of that found in conventional solar fuel cells.

As such, these algae-powered cells probably won’t be powering large grids anytime soon. Yet the authors emphasized that they could be well-suited for small applications in sunny but underdeveloped places like Africa, as well as contributing storage power to the driving movement to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy.

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Genetically Modified Beetles Grew a Fully Functional Third Eye

The concept of a “third eye” is usually associated with perception beyond the physical world, but in a new scientific case, it provides insight into evolutionary development.

Researchers have intentionally genetically modified a common beetle to develop a third functional eye, right in the middle of its forehead.

It builds on previous research in which they caused a beetle to grow a third eye accidentally. Both studies were led by Indiana University postdoctoral researcher Eduardo Zattara.

“Developmental biology is beautifully complex in part because there’s no single gene for an eye, a brain, a butterfly’s wing or a turtle’s shell,” explained researcher Armin Moczek of Indiana University.

“Instead, thousands of individual genes and dozens of developmental processes come together to enable the formation of each of these traits. We’ve also learned that evolving a novel physical trait is much like building a novel structure out of Lego bricks, by re-using and recombining ‘old’ genes and developmental processes within new contexts.”

This means that evolving new features may not be as complicated as scientists previously thought, requiring fewer genetic changes.

genetically modified scarab beetle thirs eye full inset
(Eduardo Zattara/Indiana University)

In the original research, the team switched off a gene that is involved in the development of the heads of dung beetles, which caused quite drastic changes to the structure of their heads.

The beetles lost their horns – and developed a compound eye in the middle of their heads. Moreover, it only worked in horned beetles, not other kinds.

“We were amazed that shutting down a gene could not only turn off development of horns and major regions of the head, but also turn on the development of very complex structures such as compound eyes in a new location,” Zattara said last year.

“The fact that this doesn’t happen in Tribolium is equally significant, as it suggests that orthodenticle genes have acquired a new function: to direct head and horn formation only in the highly modified head of horned beetles.”

The development of organs in an abnormal place – called ectopic organs – is a technique scientists use to try and understand how new physical traits evolve.

This has been done in fruit flies – in 1995, a team of scientists published a paper that described how they’d managed to grow ectopic eyes on the wings and legs of fruit flies.

The work of Zattara’s team, by comparison, was much simpler. They set out to intentionally grow a third eye in two types of scarab beetle, Onthophagini and Oniticellini, by wiping out just a single gene, the same head development gene from their earlier research.

genetically modified scarab beetle third eye control comparison
Control (left) and genetically modified scarab (right). (Zattara et al./PNAS)

The third eyes the beetles developed actually resulted from fused pairs of eyes. They also lost their horns, or grew much smaller horns, consistent with the earlier research.

The team then conducted multiple tests to confirm that the new eye had the same cell types, genes, nerve connections and behavioural responses as a normal eye.

“This study experimentally disrupts the function of a single, major gene. And, in response to this disruption, the remainder of head development reorganizes itself to produce a highly complex trait in a new place: a compound eye in the middle of the head,” Moczek said.

“Moreover, the darn thing actually works!”

The research could help understand how organs develop and become part of a body – which knowledge, in turn, could prove useful in the development of artificial lab-grown organs, for both research and medical purposes.

The team’s paper has been published in the journal PNAS.

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Genetically Modified Apple That Doesn’t Brown Hits US Stores This Month

Fresh Flesh

Later this month, Okanagan Specialty Fruits will begin selling its Arctic apples across the midwestern US. The fruit will be sold sliced, as it’s been genetically modified such that its flesh doesn’t brown as its exposed to air.

The genetically modified apple was made possible by research carried out at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Australia. Scientists figured out a way to prevent the browning process by deleting the gene that encodes the enzyme responsible. Okanagan suppresses this enzme in order to preserve the fruit’s flesh indefinitely.

The company produces its Arctic apple in three different varieties; Granny Smith, Golden Delicious, and Fuji. Okanagan will start supplying 400 stores in the US with bags of apple slices over the coming weeks.

An Apple a Day

Many examples of genetically modified food benefit the producer, rather than the customer, but the Arctic apple bucks that trend. There are hopes that if it’s successful, it might pave the way for other products.

Genetic modification can offer a whole host of ways to augment food, from improving the nutritional value of corn, to reducing the amount of fat in pork. However, it can be difficult for these products to be approved by authorities like the Food and Drug Administration, and even more difficult for them to catch on with consumers.

The Arctic apple has received some criticism because of the fact that its packaging doesn’t explicitly state that the fruit has been genetically modified. Instead, there’s a QR code which is linked to more detailed information.

Even despite the benefits of genetically modified foods, many consumers are still reticent to actually introduce these items into their diet. The practical advantages of an apple that doesn’t brown might just convince people to dip their toe in the water.

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Doctors Reconstructed 80 Percent of a Boy’s Skin With Genetically Modified Cells

Using Genetic Modification to Save Lives

There exist in the world a rare genetic disease that causes the skin to become very fragile, to the point that it will blister easily from minor actions such as scratching or rubbing. This disease is called junctional epidermolysis bullosa (JEB), and while it may affect less than a million people in the world, it’s still a widespread condition in need of treatment, and one that’s harmful enough to bring devastating changes to a person’s life.

As reported by Science Alert, a 7-year-old boy was admitted to a hospital burns unit in Germany in 2015 due to the fact he had lost nearly 80 percent of the skin on his body to JEB. After traditional remedies failed, the boy’s parents turned to reconstructing his skin one piece at a time. Enter Professor Michele De Luca, a stem cell researcher from the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia in Italy. Along with his team, he developed a technique to treat JEB, which involved attaching genetically modified skin grafts to the dermis — the inner layer of tissue that makes up the skin, with the epidermis being the outer layer.

We’ve seen genetic modification used in the past with varying results. In 2016, gene modding was used to make mosquitoes that would hopefully eliminate other mosquitoes that transmit diseases. Last November, genetically modified E. coli bacteria was created to treat metabolism disorders in infants. Much more recently, scientists used genetic modifications to subdue the bacteria Francisella tularensis, which has been used as a bioweapon to cause tularemia — a disease that comes with joint pain and muscle aches.

Creating Genetically Modified Skin

De Luca and his team took skin cells from the 20 percent of the boy’s body that had yet to be affected by JEB, and used it to grow protein cultures free of the disease. These cultures were then used to make epidermal grafts, which were then used to replace the lost skin. In the team’s research — published to the journal Nature— they revealed the boy was released from the hospital in February 2016. This November, 21 months after the third and final surgery, he was examined once again, revealing he had made a full recovery and now had healthier skin.

“His epidermis is currently stable and robust, and does not blister, itch, or require ointment or medications,” said the team. However, they went on to suggest their treatment may not be required for patients suffering from lesser forms of epidermolysis bullosa (EB). The 7-year-old boy was an extreme case.

Furthermore, it’s unclear how long the boy’s skin will remain healthy, meaning he’ll need to go through additional examinations as he gets older. Regardless, De Luca’s success may pave the way for others to look into similar treatments and ways to create modified skin. According to Debraat least 500,000 people live with EB. If even one of them can find relief using De Luca’s technique — or a less intense version — it’ll be worth the time and effort.

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In Japan, Chickens Have Been Genetically Engineered to Lay Eggs That Fight Cancer

Genetically Engineered Eggs are Better than Golden Eggs

People often warn about the amount of cholesterol you get from eating too many eggs. But what if there were health benefits to eggs as well — like drugs that fight cancer, hepatitis, and other diseases? Japanese researchers from the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) did just that when they successfully genetically engineered chickens to lay eggs that contain a special pharmaceutical agent.

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According to a report by The Japan News, the researchers at AIST genetically modified precursor cells of chicken sperm to produce a type of protein that’s related to the immune system called interferon beta.

This protein has been found to be effective in treating malignant skin cancer and hepatitis. The modified cells were used to fertilize eggs that produced male chicks. A few rounds of cross-breeding the male chicks resulted in chickens that inherited the genes with interferon beta.

Cheaper Drugs

Reagent import and sales firm Cosmo Bio Co. in Tokyo, which developed the method together with the AIST researchers and the the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization in Ibaraki Prefecture, now has three hens that lay eggs every one or two day. The egg whites from those eggs contain interferon beta.

Why go through such a tedious process? The project’s goal was to potentially reduce the costs of making drugs. “This is a result that we hope leads to the development of cheap drugs,” Hironobu Hojo, professor at Osaka University, told The Japan News. “In the future, it will be necessary to closely examine the characteristics of the agents contained in the eggs and determine their safety as pharmaceutical products.”

This is just one example of how gene editing methods can reshape industries, especially healthcare. Others have worked on applying gene editing such as CRISPR directly into cancer cells or to a patient. Producing cheap drugs from chicken eggs is another possibility — and a rather creative one, at that.

Moving forward, the researchers plan to work on stabilizing the interferon beta contents of the eggs to produce some a dozen milligrams to 100 milligrams from a single egg.

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