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Golden Scholars: All the best news from Berkeley in 2014 and Jay Keasling takes another big step towards eradicating malaria

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Jay Keasling's yeast-made synthetic artemisinin is being shipping to Africa to eradicate malaria and UC Berkeley reflects on another great year.

How does Getty not have any images of Keasling? Also, Ingrid Michaelson won't be discussed in this post.
How does Getty not have any images of Keasling? Also, Ingrid Michaelson won't be discussed in this post.
Theo Wargo/Getty Images

This is actually going to be a shortened version of the beloved Golden Scholars series. All my typical resources for Berkeley news have dried up, probably because of the holiday season and year's end.

Quickest of links

An interview with NYT food columnist Mark Bittman, who's embarking on a semester-long residency as a distinguished visiting fellow at the Berkeley Food Institute at UC Berkeley.

Berkeley astrophysicist Steven Boggs is leading the NASA team that has launched a massive aerostatic balloon from Antarctica that will "detect where in the sky these γ rays are coming from, and thus begin to unravel various astronomical mysteries."

2014 in review

UC Berkeley has their own official photo gallery that reflects on the past year in pictures and highlights key events like the launches of the Innovative Genomics Initiative and the Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Digital Archive, Athletic Director Sandy Barbour stepping down, and the 99th birthday party of Nobel Laureate Charles Townes.

There's a similar gallery created officially by UC Berkeley on Storehouse.com. This one's got big moments (like our official UC Berkeley documentary and Chancellor Dirks's trip to the Big C) and historical images (like a meeting of our old-timey Nobel Laureates and 20s and 30s Calympian Helen Willis Moody).

For a more specific flavor of news, you can check out the School of Public Health's Top 10 Public Health stories, which includes e-cigs, medical marijuana, and Ebola.

And if you aren't sick of science news, the Berkeley Lab posted an interactive timeline of 2014 with all the big milestones and moments. And if you still aren't sick of science after that, boy do I have the right story for you down below!

Even the Cal alum magazine is getting in on the action with their top 16 stories of the year. Why 16? I have no idea! But you can read all about the earthquake-warning app, cancer-hazard stickers on cell phones, and why everyone wants to deceive women in business.

This is where I kiss ass to get a job

All of my loyal and loving readers will have noticed that I've discussed the name Jay Keasling a lot in these posts as he's considered the pioneer in the field of synthetic biology. Well, I believe this will be my first opportunity to really get into the details of his work as he's made the news for shipping their first major delivery of artemisinin--the cure for malaria--to Africa.

Malaria doesn't seem like too big of a deal to Americans nowadays as our living conditions have completely minimized the risk; however, it remains a serious threat in underdeveloped countries--most notably, parts of Africa--and its continued presence there means there's always a risk of the parasite returning prominently in America.

The cure for malaria has been around for awhile--it's called artemisinin and it comes from the wormwood plant--but from my understanding, the yield is incredibly unreliable and prices can often be exorbitant, especially when you consider the prevalence of malaria among impoverished areas. Keasling--a professor of chemical & biomolecular engineering and bioengineering--describes the shortcomings of the wormwood-derived artemisinin as:

"So what happens with this drug when it's grown in the plant is that farmers first found out it was valuable so they planted a lot of it, and the price went through the floor, and they could no longer make a profit so they quick planting it and a few years later there was not enough artemisinin to go around," Keasling said.

So, what exactly did Keasling do that's so newsworthy? Keasling and his team made genetic changes to yeast that essentially taught them how to make and excrete artemisinin. This allowed them to have a controlled source of the product, the ability to optimize yield, and ultimately get the prices to plummet. From previous sources, I've seen estimates that the price of this synthetic artemisinin would be one-tenth the price of the wormwood-derived product.

Keasling's team developed a way to genetically modify yeast to produce the same drug in huge brewery-like tanks.

Keasling explained to ABC7 News, "And rather than spitting out alcohol as it normally does, it'd spit out this anti-malarial drug."

However, to ship the drug Keasling licensed the technology to a French-based pharmaceutical company called Sanofi. And after years in development, the company just announced their first major delivery of 1.5 million doses.

For a brief video about Keasling's work, check out the link above. Disclaimer: Cheryl Jennings mispronounces the name "Sanofi." Get it together, Cheryl!

As a bonus, check out Keasling's appearance on the now-defunct Colbert Report. He filmed this back in 2009 when I was a lowly undergrad volunteering in his lab and it was all so exciting!