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Golden Scholars: UC Berkeley detects toxins, restores vision, and wishes you a happy holidays!

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All the latest research and news out of UC Berkeley heading into the holiday season. Berkeley scientists come up with novel techniques to detect toxins and may be able to restore vision in mice, dogs, and humans. Chancellor Dirks wishes you a happy holiday season and discusses his vision for our university.

Maybe this will get golden oso to read my work...
Maybe this will get golden oso to read my work...
Theo Wargo/Getty Images

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As part of the development of the Berkeley Global Campus, Chancellor Dirks is meeting with city leaders in Richmond.

Happy holidays from Chancellor Dirks! Don't let all that holiday gorging get in the way of our goal of #shirtlessdirks in the student section!

Congratulations to biochemist Jennifer Doudna, chemical and biological engineer Jay Keasling, and chemist Richard Mathies for being named new fellows of the National Academy of Inventors! We've discussed the work of Doudna and Keasling in the past and maybe one day we'll get the opportunity to discuss Mathies's research.

Berkeley Lab is tracking air pollution and truck emissions, helping drive decreases in the Oakland area.

It's time to shoot some mice into space! For science! And to determine the effects of weightlessness and radiation on physiology!

Working with some other universities, Berkeley Lab is trying to understand what makes Roman architecture so sturdy and resilient all these years.

Taking a look at the career of Jennifer Holm, a terrestrial ecologist who models the effects of climate change on rainforests:

Pseudo-paper of polymeric peptoids pick out poisons

(Alliteration is the idiot's key to headline writing.)

Do you remember the anthrax scare of the early 00s? I do! In part because I did my Master's thesis on that (but not actually in the early 00s!), but also because it was kind of a big deal and still is. As a quick primer because I already did all this research, anthrax is considered one of the most dangerous and most likely agents that could be used in biological warfare. Sure, part of its danger is the fact that it kills 8090% of those infected, but it's mainly considered dangerous because patients initially present with nonspecific symptoms that seem like they're no big deal. BUT IT'S TOTES A BIG DEAL.

Thus, there's a pressing need for a rapid and reliable tool that can accurately identify not only anthrax, but other chemical agents, neurotoxins, or other unspeakable threats to our nation's security. And this is the point where I'm starting to have painful flashbacks to my defense and writing my thesis.

One of the current leading methods for detecting toxins like these is through the use of antibody binding. Antibodies are proteins that are capable of recognizing and binding to their destined targets, so they're an attractive option for recognizing toxins; however, antibodies are like me--they freak out and break down when the temperature starts to rise, forcing users to store them in a set of very strict conditions. Thus, Ron Zuckermann and the Berkeley Lab are creating a new kind of synthetic material to act as toxin sensors.

For the past six years, Zuckermann has been funded by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) of the Department of Defense (DOD) to design synthetic proteins that do all the things a natural antibody protein can do--self-assemble into a precise structure that recognizes viruses and bacteria--but are more durable than natural molecules and can be stored without refrigeration. Self-assembling biomimetic nanostructures (or nanostructures designed to mimic nature) are also highly sought by the military and industry alike for their potential to rapidly make large quantities of affordable yet more rugged materials.

Their peptoid technology happens to take the shape of super thin sheets. Zuckermann's team has been tasked with creating millions of different designs of these sheets to see how they respond to various toxins, potentially detecting or neutralizing them.

Unfortunately, the article doesn't get into the details of how these sheets work or how they might bind to their targets. Still, for a general idea of Zuckermann's approach, check out the brief talk he gave at the 8 Big Ideas event:

Three blind mice aren't so blind anymore

UC Berkeley researchers have developed a promising technique for restoring vision in animals with the potential application in humans. Professor Ehud Isacoff is using FDA-approved viruses to insert a gene that will give the power of light sensitivity to retinal cells that are typically not involved in vision. The target cell is crucial here because a variety of diseases or conditions cause blindness by destroying all of a patients' light-responsive rod and cone cells, these modified cells, so these target cells will remain unharmed in patients.

The treatment worked equally well to restore light responses to the degenerated retinas of mice and dogs, indicating that it may be feasible to restore some light sensitivity in blind humans.

"The dog has a retina very similar to ours, much more so than mice, so when you want to bring a visual therapy to the clinic, you want to first show that it works in a large animal model of the disease," said lead researcher Ehud Isacoff, professor of molecular and cell biology at UC Berkeley. "We've now showed that we can deliver the photoswitch and restore light response to the blind retina in the dog as well as in the mouse, and that the treatment has the same sensitivity and speed of response. We can reanimate the dog retina."

So far, the work has been done in mice and dogs, so those of you who are concerned with animal testing may find yourselves rapidly losing support for this research. However, these researchers feel testing on dogs is a necessary test for safety and for function as our canine friends afflicted with retinitis pigmentosa have the same genetic defect that plagues some humans.

Let's break down the science behind their method:

Golden Scholars- Vision restoration