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Archive → March, 2009

“Moore’s Law On Steroids” Or, A Genomics Whirlwind In Two Keynotes

One of genomics’ venerable visionaries, Harvard genetics professor George M. Church, amused attendees at the fourth annual meeting of the DOE’s Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek, Calif., last week, with a photo of a purchase order from his lab in 1980, for a couple of DNA snippets 10 base pairs long, costing $6,000 a pop. Nowadays, he pointed out, “$500 will give you 15 million base pairs.”

During his keynote, Church breezed through the highlights of his stunning career, and the equally stunning progress of the genomics field, dubbing the ever-accelerating speed at which genomic sequences can be decoded “Moore’s law on steroids.”

As a graduate student in 1978, Church synthesized the first artificial plasmid, which contained only 4.6 kilobases. By contrast, his lab announced last year–somewhat unconventionally, before peer review–that they’d assembled the first artificial ribosome.

Back in 1984, Church helped develop the first method for genomic sequencing, and initiated the human genome project. Recently, he discovered organisms that thrive on antibiotics  .

But clearly Church’s pet venture is the Personal Genome Project , which he launched in 2006. Volunteers, of whom Church is one, allow their genomic, medical and environmental information to be made public, facilitating research on personalized medicine. Last week, the project was expanded from 10 volunteers to 100,000. Within two days, 10,000 volunteers had lined up for entrance exams. “But we need more,” Church said.

Another genomics star, Craig Venter, also held forth at JGI, taking the audience on a virtual whirlwind tour of the research at his facility in La Jolla, the J. Craig Venter Institute, from the cultivation of microbes that turn coal into methane, to the conversion of one bacterial species to another.

The former Celera Genomics founder and president also just launched a new leg of his oceanic microbe-mining project, the Global Ocean Sampling Expedition. The research vessel, Venter’s own 95-foot yacht, the Sorcerer II  set sail March 19, from San Diego’s Shelter Island Marina.

Microbes are the future of new gene discovery, Venter said. “If you’re looking for new mammalian genes, stop. They’ve basically all been found.”

It's Our Birthday

Well, almost. Tomorrow marks the one-year anniversary of C&ENtral Science’s launch. It’s been a fun and thought-provoking experiment. One that makes me, unlike many of you grad students, glad to know there is no end in sight.

A few highlights from the past year:

Our most popular post by far was on Conan O’Brien’s boron blunder rant.

Apparently, you all like to talk about lead in drinking water, responding to creationism, and whether or not orgo is worthwhile, as those posts generated the most chatter on C&ENtral Science.

The most popular search term that brought people to our blog was “terracotta army.” Lisa Jarvis wins the “Most Searched For Writer” award. And the oddest search term? “cute Pakistani”

Finally, one of my favorite posts was Paul Bracher’s contribution, “Proper Usage Of PTNs.”

Thanks to those of you who keep coming back and to those who comment on or share our posts. And if there’s something we’re not doing quite right or something else we’re not doing at all that you’d like to see, please leave a comment here or feel free to shoot me an email (r_pepling at acs dot org).

Now go out and enjoy a cupcake/cookie/other sweet treat of your choice in our honor. And if you want to send us a cake, we’re cool with that, too.

Photo: Shutterstock

Chemical Assets

It is time to wallow in schadenfreude, chemical nation (to riff, with some feeling of shame, off of Stephen Colbert). Take this moment, and it may be a fleeting one, to look with mocking nods at the financial masters of the universe. And as you look at them, don’t forget to add a great big thank you.

You see, the suits on Wall Street have done for the chemical enterprise what the chemical enterprise has been unable to do for itself for the past half-century. In a feat that surely has those finely educated and chronically-hyperpaid financial wizards wide-eyed with astonishment, they have managed to wrest from the chemical enterprise an unwanted burden that for so long it practically owned—the adjective “toxic.”

All it took to achieve this lexical hand-off, or at least a co-ownership deal, was a bacchanal of greed, access to everybody else’s money, uncritical faith in risk-assessing algorithms, and hyena-like zeal to get the financially unschooled masses to invest and borrow more than they ever could have responsibly hoped to afford. The result: a financial Love Canal of global proportions.

Now the word that most often follows “toxic”—whether it be written in a newspaper article, spoken in a radio report, or typed in a blog—is “assets.” “Toxic assets.” “Toxic assets.”  ”Toxic assets.” The phrase is on everyone’s lips. For the moment, the klieg light has left “toxic chemicals” on a dark part of the stage because it is beaming on “toxic assets.” For a feel-good moment, try this: in series, type “toxic waste,” “toxic chemicals,” and “toxic assets,” into the great oracle, Google. When I did that, the hit counter at the top of the results page indicated 2,230,000; 3,540,000, and a whopping 12,000,000, respectively.

Now is the time, chemical nation, to be irrationally exuberant. Go ahead, dance in the street while yelling “TOXIC ASSETS. TOXIC ASSETS.” Do it now. The klieg light’s beam is bound to shift again.

Show Me The Money

NSF Chemistry Division Director Luis Echegoyen announced a proposed sweeping realignment of the division’s chemistry programs at the foundation’s ACS Town Hall meeting on Monday evening in Salt Lake City. During the Q&A that followed Echegoyen’s presentation, all anyone wanted to ask about was the $3 billion NSF will receive as part of the Obama Administration’s economic stimulus package.

slc_nsf.jpg“Most of what I am at liberty to talk about on the stimulus, you already know,” Echegoyen told the packed house at the outset of his presentation.

Didn’t matter. The first question Echegoyen took after his presentation was, “Will the stimulus allow anything that has been canceled to be revived?” Six or seven more questions on the stimulus followed. Before he adjourned the session, Echegoyen asked, “Does anyone have anything to say about the realignment?” No one seemed to.

The goal of the proposed changes, Echegoyen said in his presentation, is to realign the chemistry division “to guarantee that the very best projects in research, education, training, and infrastructure development are supported and to anticipate and respond to new developments in chemistry.”

The new structure would abandon the traditional program delineations such as the “Organic and Macromolecular Program” and the “Physical Chemistry Program.” In their place would be eight new programs in the following areas:

  • Chemical Synthesis
  • Chemical Structure, Dynamics & Mechanisms
  • Chemical Measurement & Imaging
  • Theory, Models & Computational Methods
  • Environmental Chemical Sciences
  • Chemistry of Life Processes
  • Chemical Catalysis

“This represents a substantial departure from the current structure,” Echegoyen noted, adding that the only word that survives from the old structure to the new is “theory.”

The Chemistry Division handed out a nifty brochure that describes each of the proposed new programs. It doesn’t look like it is available yet on the division’s website, but I’m sure someone will send you one if you ask. You can submit comments about the proposed realignment to .

Photo: Madeleine Jacobs (left), Ronald Breslow (center), and Luis Echegoyen at the ACS Town Hall meeting. Credit: Rudy Baum/C&EN

MIT Goes Whole Hog For Open Access

Massachusetts Institute of Technology faculty members have unanimously voted to post their scholarly manuscripts in a free repository on the Web.

The peer-reviewed manuscripts will be posted in the university’s DSpace repository on the date of journal publication. Authors can opt out of the agreement on a paper-by-paper basis.

Harvard University’s arts and sciences faculty members established a similar policy back in February 2008.  But MIT notes in an announcement that the new policy is the first faculty-driven, university-wide initiative of its kind in the U.S.

Is your own university considering a similar move?

How necessary is this type of policy? In other words, how often do you have trouble accessing a paper you want to read?

Small World

I’m not sure what drew me to Marilyn Mackiewicz’ poster during Sci-Mix tonight, but there I was firing off a rapid succession of photos while she explained her research to a passerby.

You might say it was fate, because when she finished her presentation, she looked straight into my lens and asked, “Did you go to Texas A&M?” Stunned, I put my camera down and asked, “Do we know each other?”

Marilyn reminded me that we had met at a bus stop in 2001 while I was a second-year master’s student in science journalism and she was a first-year doctoral student in chemistry. That day, I had been on my way to visit the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum, in College Station, and I spontaneously invited Marilyn to join me. We became instant friends, meeting up often for lunch and even going to see the fireworks on the Fourth of July. We lost touch after I graduated and moved to Washington, D.C.

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Four Minutes And Forty-Seven Seconds Of Fame

Jeremy D. Leavell had been standing at his poster on crystallography for an hour and eight minutes when I came across him at the undergraduate poster session this afternoon.

Most students I had talked with had between five and six people stop by their posters. Some students excitedly told me they had explained their work to around 20 people.

But for Jeremy, not a single person had stopped by his poster the entire time he had been standing there—and there was only 20 minutes left in the poster session.

Jeremy noted that one girl had stopped by, glanced at his poster, and then continued on. “I didn’t even get a chance to present it to her,” he said. He still counts that as half a visitor.

It’s understandable why more people hadn’t stopped by, said Jeremy, who is a senior biochemistry major at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. Research on crystallography can be a bit obscure.

I wanted to give Jeremy, who is attending his first ACS national meeting, an opportunity to present his poster, and what better audience than C&EN readers? “Now I’ve just one-upped everyone,” he said.

Photogenic Salt Lake City

Saturday afternoon was the one significant block of free time I had during the week I am spending in Salt Lake City. It was a glorious spring day, sunny and breezy with the temperatures in the upper 60s, so I took a walk with my camera.

Realistic bronze sculptures of people, often children, are scattered throughout the city. This one of a boy and a girl at the base of a flagpole sits in front of the city’s impressive city hall, the tower of which appears in the background. The inscription reads: “Erected as a tribute to our nation’s constitution and flag by the school children of Salt Lake City AD 1936-37.”

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