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Golden Scholars: Bill Maher speaks, Berkeley gets cold, and creating perfect plants

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The latest news from UC Berkeley involves engineering plants for biofuels, Bill Maher responding to protesters of his commencement speech, and a new record for cold.

Harry How

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UC Berkeley is the alma mater for the 8th most billionaires in the world. Maybe they can give a little back to the university and the athletics department...?

Assistant professor Oskar Hallatschek has modeled how the spread of diseases like Ebola has been affected by air travel, comparing his findings to data of old-timey diseases like the Black Death.

Berkeley alumna Brittany Maynard is in the news as part of the debate over euthanasia as she has decided to end her own life after being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Our condolences to her friends and family.

Scientists at the Berkeley Lab are working with our buffalo buddies at CU Boulder to ID a suspect in Arctic warming: far-infrared.

Bill Maher has given his statement on the Berkeley commencement controversy:

Wayyyyy back in the second-ever Golden Scholars (which I know you all remember), we discussed Berkeley's research into the dangers of thirdhand smoke. Berkeley Lab has released a new study into the risks associated with this phenomenon.

Baby it's cold inside

What's cooler than being cool? I don't know, Outkast guy, but the Berkeley Lab does. Researchers at the Berkeley Lab and their collaborators have created the coldest cubic meter ever.

All the hot action is going down in Italy at the Cryogenic Underground Observatory for Rare Events (CUORE), coordinated by an international team of researchers. They have chilled this space as close as humans have ever gotten to absolute zero: 0.006 Kelvins = -273.144°C = -459.66°F.

"We've been building this experiment for almost ten years," says Yury Kolomensky, senior faculty scientist in the Physics Division of Berkeley Lab, professor of physics at UC Berkeley, and U.S. spokesperson for the CUORE collaboration. "This is a tremendous feat of cryogenics. We've exceeded our goal of 10 milliKelvin. Nothing in the universe this large has ever been as cold."

This temperature was sustained for over two weeks by nesting a series of chambers, one inside the other with each inner chamber being smaller and colder than the previous.

So, what's the point in doing something like this besides the obvious bragging rights and street cred? Can this kind of technology be used to combat global warming? No. It doesn't work like that.


(Yes, you could make a "winter is coming" reference here, but if you really wanted to link Game of Thrones to UC Berkeley, it would be better to mention alumnus David J. Peterson who freakin' created Valyrian and Dothraki for the show.)

But, it could help researchers understand why the universe and all of everything exists. I guess that's kind of cool.

Berkeley builds better botanicals for biofuels

Hey, I have some new problems that have never been discussed by scientists, the news, or Golden Scholars! Carbon emissions. Global warming. Fossil fuels. New and unfamiliar topics!

One of the proposed strategies to combat this is through the use of biofuels--fuels derived from plant sources. Unfortunately, plants are all stubborn and junk and grow up with their own ideas, rather than growing in a ways that's advantageous for us. Enter, Afingen--a start-up started up by scientists (Henrik Scheller and Dominique Loqué) at the Berkeley Lab. Afingen has pioneered the technology to control both the levels of gene expression in a plant, but also the ability to localize these effects, so different parts of the same plant will behave differently, the latter of which is integral to Afingen's technique.

Let's get elbow-deep into some science to understand the importance. The key product they're looking to maximize is the sugar within the plant--called cellulose. This stuff is gold! Unfortunately, the cells are also stuffed with this garbage called "lignin." Garbage that makes it super-expensive to harvest that golden cellulose sugar; however, it turns out that cells use that garbage for structural strength. It's like building a city on a landfill back in old-timey days.

Other researchers have grown light-lignin plants, but they turn out weaker than a limp... ahem... stick? These plants struggle to grow, resulting in poor yield of cellulose. Afingen, on the other hand, were able to find success by selectively manipulating the genetic expression of the plant.

With Afingen's technique, the plant can be manipulated to retain high lignin levels only in its water-carrying vascular cells, where cell-wall strength is needed for survival, but low levels throughout the rest of the plant.

It's like they created a superhero with the body of the Hulk and the head of Bruce Banner. (You could just avoid how goofy that looks by creating Smart Hulk. I could do that if someone hires me hire me pleaseeeee.)

Scheller and Loqué are making a lot of noise for these developments, earning a $1.72M grant to create high-cellulose and low-lignin switchgrass and an R&D 100 Award.