Scientists in the U.S. designed a living “minimally viable” synthetic species in a lab, their colleagues in Singapore commandeered a beetle with electrodes and turned it into a cyborg, and a team in Scotland found sections of the human genome where changes in DNA can shorten life expectancy by as many as three years. Amateur astronomers also spotted a mystery object slamming into Jupiter. Read on.
Scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute created the first minimally viable synthetic bacterial cell. “The new minimal synthetic cell contains 531,560 base pairs and just 473 genes, making it the smallest genome of any organism that can be grown in laboratory media,” they said in a press release. “Of these genes 149 are of unknown biological function.”
It took the team five years to create the cell, called Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn3.0. “Our attempt to design and create a new species, while ultimately successful, revealed that 32 percent of the genes essential for life in this cell are of unknown function, and showed that many are highly conserved in numerous species,” said the institute’s founder, CEO and executive chairman, J. Craig Venter.
Researchers at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore implanted electrodes in a living giant flower beetle and then drove it with electrical stimuli. “To the best of our knowledge, this paper presents the first demonstration of living insect locomotion control with a user-adjustable walking gait, step length and walking speed,” they wrote in a paper published by the Royal Society. Nanyang researchers had previously controlled the same kind of beetle in flight. That project was a partnership with the University of California, Berkeley.
Researchers at the SETI Institute are expanding their search for alien radio signals to 20,000 new star systems orbiting red dwarfs — dim stars much older than the sun. “This may be one instance in which older is better,” said astronomer Seth Shostak of California-based SETI. “Older solar systems have had more time to produce intelligent species.”
Scientists at the University of Edinburgh have discovered two different sections of the human genome where changes in DNA can shorten life expectancy by as many as three years. “The two changes – known as variants – are relatively common in the population,” the team said in a press release. “More than two thirds of us will inherit a single copy of one of them from either our mother or father.”
One of the variants increases the risk of lung cancer and severe respiratory problems in people who smoke. The other is linked to Alzheimer’s disease and high cholesterol. “Although the effect of these genetic variants on lifespan is surprisingly large, it is important to remember that this is only part of the story,” said Dr. Peter Joshi of the University of Edinburgh’s Usher Institute of Population Health Sciences and Informatics. “Lifestyle has the greatest impact on how long we live and that is under our control.”
Amateur astronomers from around the world reported on Reddit they spotted a large cosmic body, most likely an asteroid or a small comet, slam into Jupiter on March 17. “I’ll note that Jupiter has always been getting hit, but the uptick in detections is because our technology is getting better and less expensive,” wrote Phil Plait on the blog Bad Astronomy. “You don’t need a zillion dollar observatory to catch something like this; an off-the-shelf telescope and video camera can do the trick.”