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Golden Scholars: UC Berkeley yearns to shrink you onto a chip and takes enzymes to the XTREMEEEE

UC Berkeley is looking for ways to decrease the time and cost for health care using human-clone chips and try to create biofuels with extreme! enzymes.

Doug Pensinger

Quick links

You may have heard that US News and World Report ranked Berkeley as the #1 public school.

For more on our previous discussion of an earthquake sensor, politicians and officials agree that it's time to see such a system implemented:

UC Berkeley astrophysics professor Josh Bloom has his own design for an earthquake sensor for every home, which would cost around $100 apiece.

Professor Jennifer Doudna (whose work we've covered extensively) will hijack @UCBerkeleyNews from 12 noon1 p.m. PT today for a live-tweet Q&A. Check out what she had to say or join in with #DPJAward!

Beloved Berkeley astronomy professor and perennial CGB HOF candidate Alex Filippenko wrote at length to fight for funding for the Lick Observatory, the only observatory owned by the UC

UC Berkeley has launched Catalyst@Berkeley, an incubator for health tech start-ups. Catayst@Berkeley may or may not be planning on competing with the nascent StartX, an "accelerator" that's "loosely affiliated" with the Furd.

Dat cyclotron

Enzymes go extreme to the max

One of the most promising potential sources for biofuels remains locked away thanks to an impenetrable shield called lignocellulose. As my writing may have tipped off, one of the biggest obstacles to achieving this is breaking down the lignocellulose. Berkeley faculty scientist Douglas Clark figures the best way to accomplish this is by going x-treme. Hello 90s! Illogically large guns, impossible muscles, and endless pouches for all!

Clark characterizes the problem much more intelligently and with far fewer comic-book references as:

"Lignocellulose is designed by nature to stand tall and resist being broken down, and lignin in particular acts like a molecular glue to help hold it together" said Clark, who holds appointments with Berkeley Lab's Physical Biosciences Division and UC Berkeley's Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department where he currently serves as dean of the College of Chemistry. "Consequently, lignocellulosic biomass must undergo either chemical or enzymatic deconstruction to release the sugars that can be fermented to biofuels."

One of the challenges is to find a way to break down the molecule in the sweet spot of 6570°C (150160°F) so Clark is searching tirelessly in even hotter regions like thermal springs in Nevada to find an enzyme that can withstand these cray-cray temperatures. They were not only able to find bacteria that thrive in these temperatures (called thermophiles) and contain candidate enzymes, but they also performed random mutagenesis techniques to improve the productivities of these enzymes.

Clark is doing great work that could break down key barriers in the quest for biofuels. Who'd have thought going x-treme was still useful after the 90s?

Chipping away at delays in health care

UC Berkeley think you plus chips could be great for your health. Well, not like Doritos, but I don't think I've run this play on words with "chips" into the ground just yet. Berkeley researchers believe they can cut down on the long time needed to find and optimize medical treatments for patients using microchips. By effectively growing miniaturized versions of the patient, they can test several different medicines for their efficacies and side effects specific to each patient. This innovative work is being performed in the labs of professor of bioengineering Luke Lee and professor of bioengineering and materials science & engineering Kevin Healy (my professor for BioE C118: Biomaterials).

Right now, it can take billions of dollars and years to develop a single medication. For every one that gets the Food and Drug Administration's approval, 40,000 others don't make it through the process. That raises companies' expenses, and experts often point to these bleak trends as one of the root causes for the high prices for new drugs. If the organoid research pans out, there could be as much as a 10-fold improvement in the speed, cost, and accuracy of developing new drugs, according to Dr. Chris Austin, the director of the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCAT), an agency within the National Institutes of Health that oversees the Cures Acceleration Network.

One additional and super powerful aspect of this toolif it were to work perfectly as plannedis the ability to combine different tissue types on the same chip, like heart and liver tissues; this would show researchers how a drug or medication for one target tissue could affect the rest of the body.

The future of these chips is totally still in the air. On one hand, medical research invariably relies on animal studies in its nascent studies. This research raises ethical dilemmas and potential medical problems due to any changes between the human body and the animal system; these chip-based organoids could bypass these problems. On the other hand, the Golden Bear researchers are encountering problems with developing mimicked organs that properly model the complexity of some organs, like the adult brain.

The article does consult with a Furdie data scientist, who questions if the technology will actually lead to lower prices because medicine developers can charge whatever they want if there are no alternatives. Of course the Furdie is going to assume the worst of the world and think of ways to maximize profitability while attempting to discredit UC Berkeley. Of course.