Biotechnology, Bioinformatics and The Elizabeth Line...?

Firstly, as a warm, well I guess a cool, welcome to all you Londoners here on Good News and Positivity, check out the brilliant new Crossrail trains that are set to speed beneath the UK capital in a couple of years. They have much needed air conditioning (hence the pun), which anyone who has spent a sweaty Friday afternoon on the Underground in July will tell you is absolutely ESSENTIAL. Additionally, they will have wifi and 4G connectivity in the actual train, and their new lightweight design uses 30% less electricity than comparable trains.

For anyone feeling confused, Crossrail (recently named the Elizabeth Line after Her Royal Majesty) is a huge new underground line which is being built in London and will open in 2018. It’s Europe’s largest engineering project and, if you’re into technology, there’s loads of exciting innovation going on surrounding the project which you can have a look at. Just for starters, here’s a 3D video of one of the completed tunnels:

As we move towards wearable technology and see the advent of flexible displays, one aspect of material research that could help greatly is the news that researchers at the EPFL (École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne) in Switzerland have developed a conductive circuit track that can be stretched up to four times its original length and bent in half.

This liquid-like circuitry certainly widens the possibilities of using electronics in prosthetic limbs and more human-like robots. I just want an elastic iPhone cable!

Speaking of robots, Facebook’s Artificial Intelligence Research (FAIR) programme has decided to lend a hand in the academic world as they are donating 25 high-powered GPU (graphics processing unit) servers to various European institutions.

Increasingly, biomedical research requires the use of high computing power in order to analyse things such as images of cells and virtual models of drug molecules. This field, termed bioinformatics, is a growing part of the modern day scientific laboratory. Whereas a decade or two ago, lab scientists could only work with enough cells that they could image and analyse on their own with a relatively standard desktop PC, nowadays a technique called high-throughput screening can produce thousands of cells under different conditions in the same amount of time. These quantities of cell cultures are far too large to analyse manually, and so highly automated, customised software is written by bioinformaticians to scan the plates of cells.

High throughput screening facilities were once the sole pursuit of large pharmaceutical companies, who had millions or billions of dollars to spend on their drug research, and could therefore afford the expensive servers and robotics equipment needed to stock a screening lab. However, since the general decline in the cost of technology in recent years, screening labs are now becoming more popular in universities with strong biomedical research. For example, at University College London, the Translational Research Resource Centre (TRRC) uses a highly automated process involving customised robotics architecture to offer screening services to both researchers at the University itself and also external companies or institutions.

 Chemical Genomics Robot! I know right! Such a cool name. via WIkipedia Commons

 Chemical Genomics Robot! I know right! Such a cool name. via WIkipedia Commons

Academic institutions and biotechnology companies already make use of cloud computing power, via the services of large tech companies such as Amazon and Google, who run powerful servers that are ideal for the kind of technical analysis that is required in much biomedical research these days. Facebook’s noble effort to help this field constitutes a great example of how technology companies can use their power and knowledge to make a real difference in science.

More good news in biotechnology this week as researchers in China have managed to create mouse sperm cells from stem cells. Stem cells are the anything and everything cell that can become any type of cell in the body, and they have recently been favoured in research as it is hoped that one day they may hold the answer to growing replacement organs and limbs for people, amongst other things.

This significant find is the first time that anyone has been able to produce sperm completely in a test tube, without the need to transplant the cells into the testes of the animal to finish the process. Sperm cells are unique as, along with female egg cells, they are the only cell type to possess only half the number of usual chromosomes, enabling genetic information from both parents to be combined when the sperm fertilises the egg.

The process which generates these haploid sperm cells is called meiosis and researchers have not been able to observe it in full until now. There are hopes that this technique will allow the observation of sperm development and enable development of future treatments for male infertility.

The future looks bright, doesn't it?! Let us know your thoughts! 

Written Alex Kyrtsoudis
@AJKyrt