From The CENtral Science Blogs
- Jun 19th, 2013By Melody Bomgardner
- Jun 18th, 2013By Jyllian Kemsley
- Jun 17th, 2013By Jeff Huber
- Jun 14th, 2013By Rachel Pepling
- Jun 4th, 2013By David Kroll
- Jun 11th, 2013By Alex Tullo
- May 26th, 2013By Sarah Everts
- May 13th, 2013By Lisa Jarvis
- Apr 18th, 2013By Glen Ernst
All Latest Posts
Gevo, a maker of bio-based isobutanol, is now actually making isobutanol. It says something that a publicly-traded company has been not making its commercial product for some months. The problem was a bug in the production system – technically a microbe – a microbe other than the one (a yeast) that was supposed to be making isobutanol.
I spoke with Gevo’s CEO Pat Gruber yesterday at the BIO show in Montreal. He was rather forthright about what happened. First, they were running the plant at full scale with their own yeast and had their separation process running. They were producing truckloads of isobutanol. The facility had previously been an ethanol fermentation plant. With the new operating conditions, a dormant microbe sprang to life, contaminating the process. The product was still being made but the company decided to shut down the plant and decontaminate it.
“We had to identify the sources of the contaminant, change the pipes, sanitize the equipment, train the staff and modify the operating conditions to favor our yeast,” Gruber recounted. He emphasized that these plants are not sterile like a pharma plant would be. Instead, vectors of contamination are controlled so they stay at very low levels.
When I wrote about biobased chemicals last summer, analysts held out Gevo as an example of a success story. It was shortly after the story ran that Gevo stopped its process at its Luverne, Minn. plant due to problems with contamination. The episode shows the kind of growing pains that the industry and its followers are learning to anticipate and accept.
Other companies might face different kinds of growing pains – for Gevo there was what is called technical risk. Other firms are making chemicals such as biosuccinic acid. They also face a market risk because for most applications their product is not a drop in raw material, so downstream customers must adopt it.
This year is the tenth anniversary of the World Congress for Industrial Technology. Historically, it seems to take about a decade for a new chemical concept to reach commercialization, and then some more time to penetrate new markets. This makes 2013 a very interesting year for the biobased chemical industry.
This week’s issue of C&EN includes a story by Celia Arnaud about proposed changes to the ACS Guidelines for Bachelor’s Degree Programs, which are developed by the Committee on Professional Training. The issue also has a comment by committee leaders Anne B. McCoy of Ohio State University and Ron W. Darbeau of Louisiana’s McNeese State University.
Included in the changes are revisions to the safety requirements. Former committee leaders told me a few years ago that the last guidelines revision, completed in 2008, had more explicitly addressed safety than earlier versions, so the newly-proposed revisions take the criteria a step further.
Here’s what the requirements say now in the safety section:
7.3 Laboratory Safety Skills.
Approved programs should promote a safety-conscious culture in which students understand the concepts of safe laboratory practices and how to apply them. Programs should train students in the aspects of modern chemical safety appropriate to their educational level and scientific needs. A high degree of safety awareness should begin during the first laboratory course, and both classroom and laboratory discussions must stress safe practices. Students should understand responsible disposal techniques, understand and comply with safety regulations, understand and use material safety data sheets (MSDS), recognize and minimize potential chemical and physical hazards in the laboratory, and know how to handle laboratory emergencies effectively.
And here’s what’s proposed (overall, there’s a shift from “shoulds” to “musts”):
Section 7.3 Laboratory Safety Skills (p. 14-15)
Programs must train students in the aspects of modern chemical safety appropriate to their educational level and scientific needs. Approved programs must promote a safety-conscious culture in which students understand the concepts of safe laboratory practices and apply them.
- Programs must train students in the aspects of modern chemical safety appropriate to their educational and scientific needs.
- The promotion of safety awareness and skills must begin during the first laboratory experience and be incorporated into each lab experience thereafter. Classroom and laboratory discussions must stress safe practices. Students should be actively engaged in the evaluation and assessment of safety risks associated with laboratory experiences.
- Safety understanding and skills should build throughout the curriculum and be assessed.
- Students should
- understand responsible disposal techniques
- understand and comply with safety regulations
- understand and use material safety data sheets (MSDS)
- recognize and minimize potential chemical and physical hazards in the laboratory and know how to effectively handle laboratory emergencies.
- Students must undergo general safety training as well as lab-specific training before beginning undergraduate research.
- Approved programs must have an active, departmental safety committee.
What say you, readers? Are the proposed changes necessary or sufficient? What would you add or subtract?
From McCoy and Darbeau’s piece this week: “Please send comments to email@example.com by Aug. 1 so they can be discussed at the next CPT meeting. The committee will also hold an extended open meeting on Sept. 8 at the ACS national meeting in Indianapolis that will focus on the guidelines revision. Details will be posted on the CPT website. CPT plans to publish the new guidelines in 2014.”
I’m in Montreal today for the World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology – put on by the Biotechnology Industry Association. The soaking rain that threatened to drown my arrival on Sunday has given way to warmer weather with just a few threatening clouds. Similarly, the mood at the show is one of patient optimism.
This year is the show’s tenth anniversary and it is reported to be the largest one yet with 1200 attendees. There are actually seven tracks of breakout sessions which makes it rather difficult for this reporter to follow along.
The major change that I’ve noticed compared to my first show four years ago is in the content of the presentations. It used to be all about the super microbe – speakers would show off elaborate slides with metabolic pathways – they all looked like very complicated subway maps. Since then the industry has learned that microbes can build a lot, but they can’t build your business for you.
This year the subject matter is all about scale up and applications. The language is more MBA than MicroBio. Supply chains, value chains, financing, customers, joint ventures, IPOs. Of course by now any start-up with a microbe has learned by now if their business plan is worth money or not – and only those that answer yes are still here.
I’ve been told to expect some major announcements this morning so follow along with my tweets @MelodyMV if you want the dish. Yesterday Myriant said it got its bio succinic acid plant up and running in Lake Providence, LA. It will be ramping up tp 30 million lbs per year.
The Newscripts blog would like to be closer Internet buddies with our glossy print Newscripts column, so here we highlight what’s going on in the print issue of C&EN.
There’s an unfortunate trend that seems to be becoming increasingly popular in today’s science news world. The recipe goes like this: Take one misleading headline, add an introductory sentence that takes liberties with the subject matter it’s covering, and stir in one gullible blogosphere, and before you know it, you have a distorted science news story that appears to be popping up everywhere.
That’s the controversy that C&EN Senior Editor Carmen Drahl took on in last week’s Newscripts column. Carmen stumbled upon a press release purporting to have found a way to analyze human health through the measurement of genetic material. She called bullocks on the claim, and the journal responsible for the press release apologized.
According to Carmen, this incident is nothing new. She says National Geographic blogger Ed Yong and many others have been leading a battle against misleading public relations for years. She also remembers stumbling across two particularly dubious “news stories” herself. One centered on the ENCODE (ENCyclopedia Of DNA Elements) Project. As Carmen remembers, the project’s attempts to catalog the pieces that make up the genome led to press releases that claimed so-called junk DNA served a life function, which in turn led to a barrage of articles both deriding the articles as hype and asking for clarification on what constitutes as “junk.”
Tweet of the Week:
4th opinion: Myriad – isolated DNA is not patentable, but synthetic DNA is.
— SCOTUSblog (@SCOTUSblog) June 13, 2013
To the network:
Cleantech Chemistry: The Gut(microbe)less Gribble – Biofuel Hero? and IEA Looks To Fossil Fuel Industry to Control Climate Change
The Chemical Notebook: Why Doesn’t Radio Shack Sell 3D Printers?
Silly samplings from this week’s science news, compiled by Sophia Cai, Bethany Halford, and Jeff Huber.
Newest scare tactic to prevent teen births: photos of pregnant boys. [Today]
Speaking of dude looks like a lady, Aerosmith’s organist is a leading geneticist in his spare time. [CNN]
Mountain livin’ changes the way people talk. In a related story, talkin’ about mountain livin’ makes the Newscripts gang want to drop the letter g from gerunds. [Perth Now]
Here’s a job we don’t want: tiger acupuncturist. [CBS News]
The world’s best sci-fi-themed bars. It’s like they were made for the Newscripts gang. [io9]
Florida scientists dismiss the notion of “vampire mosquitoes.” Somewhere a “Twilight” fan sighs heavily in disappointment. [News 13]
Turns out antidepressants kill the libidos of male minnows. No word yet on whether some Barry White music and a bottle of wine might mitigate these effects. [TreeHugger]
There’s no front basket for E.T. to sit in, but this helicopter bike can actually fly (with video). [Gizmodo]
And while we’re on the subject, these scientists are tired of waiting to hear from aliens–they’re phoning E.T. first. [NBC News]
Behold the Gribble – a true gutless wonder. The Gribble (pictured here) is a marine wood-boring creature of around 2 millimeters in size. Scientists at the UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council have been spending quality time with the Gribble because of its exceptional innards.
The tiny animal eats wood that finds its way into the sea. The wood can come from mangrove swamps or wash into estuaries from land. Gribbles, also called ship borers, have also been known to chow on wooden sailing vessels (including, rather famously, those of the Columbus voyages). “I’m sure they’ve taken down a few pirate ships, too” says Simon J McQueen-Mason a BBSRC researcher and materials biology professor at the University of York.
Most critters that eat wood or other lignocellulose plant material rely on symbiotic relationships with a diverse population of gut microbes – called the microbiome – to break down the tough-to-digest meal. When news reports suggest that pandas may hold the key to biofuels breakthroughs because they can live on tough bamboo, it’s really the microbes, and the enzymes made by the microbes, that are of interest.
(You can read a C&EN cover story about pandas, microbiomes and biofuels )
But the Gribble has no microbiome. And it doesn’t have the squishy, absorptive digestive system that most animals have. In fact, it digests its meals of wood in a sterile, hard-sided chamber in its hind gut. McQueen-Mason likens the environment to “a steel container you might use in an industrial lab.”
Instead of microbial helpers, the gribble has a separate organ where it produces the key enzyme itself. Termites do not do this (they have microbes). The gribble “must use quite aggressive chemistry; the enzyme is so harsh that it would kill any microbes” that might otherwise occupy the space, McQueen-Mason says.
The research team found the mystery organ and looked at the genes expressed there. Many of them encoded instructions for making what is called GH7 cellulase. This is a family of enzymes that are normally found in wood-degrading fungi. “These cellulases are abundant but were never reported in an animal before,” McQueen-Mason notes. “We were able to express the genes in a lab fungus and describe the properties.”
They also used X-ray crystallography to discover the structure of the enzyme and show how it binds cellulose chains and breaks them into small sugar molecules.
The Gribble’s enzyme appears to be very rugged and long-lasting, which is a good quality for an enzyme that might be used in an industrial setting to make biofuels from wood or straw, McQueen-Mason points out. It works very well in highly saline conditions and may also function well in ionic liquids. The use of salt water and ionic liquids for biofuels processing may cut down on the use of expensive, precious fresh water. And like a true catalyst, the enzyme may be reusable.
You can see a video of the Gribble – which I highly recommend – it’s kind of cute.
For more on the enzyme, check out the journal paper: ‘Structural characterization of the first marine animal Family 7 cellobiohydrolase suggests a mechanism of cellulase salt tolerance’ www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1301502110.
About a year ago, I decided the best deployment of unused capital in my Scottrade account was to purchase shares of Radio Shack. My investment thesis was this: 1) I bought a TRS-80 there 30 years ago. 2) I made guitar effects pedals using Radio Shack parts there about 20 years ago. That’s it. The whole idea was predicated on nostalgia. I’m in the red thus far.
I have learned a lot about Radio Shack—the business side, not where they keep the capacitors—after the fact. (The capacitors are in a metal case with pull out drawers near the back.)
For instance, the profit center of the company is the stuff you normally think of when you think of Radio Shack: The thing that connects one electronic gizmo to another, like when you are installing an entertainment center. The problem is there isn’t much growth in that business.
The growth comes from smart phones and the like. The problem here is that the profits here are slimmer and Radio Shack has too much competition.
This is where 3-D printers come in and why my griping about Radio Shack is relevant to chemistry.
I’ve written about 3-D printing in the past. It is, essentially, a new technique for processing plastics. To make a part, one doesn’t need a costly mold. But the tradeoff is that the user can’t make many of the same part very efficiently. Thus, the technique is ideal for designers to make prototypes. And 3D printing also holds promise for hobbyists and tinkerers of all kinds, especially when firms such as 3D
Systems are offering machines for as little as $1,300.
It would seem like Radio Shack would be an ideal retailer for 3D printers and, perhaps more importantly, the consumables involved: cartridges of acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene and polylactic acid. 3D printers are today very much like ham radios were 40 years ago and computers were 30 years ago: outlets for curiosity and creativity. 3D Printers are also cool. Who wouldn’t be fascinated seeing a 3D printer in a store, perhaps churning out a new object right before your eyes in a demonstration? Why, people might even walk into Radio Shack deliberately to see a 3D printer up close. It would be the first time the store had a draw since it did away with the Battery Club.
But there is a first retailer getting into the 3D printing business with 3D Systems printers: Staples. Is that a good fit? I suppose. They sell toner and report covers. It is the store of last resort for Blue Fun Tak in early September. I think Radio Shack would have been better, to be honest. But Staples outfoxed Radio Shack and that’s the point.