Wednesday, March 19, 2008

NO meat this week

did you know that a cow produces an equal amount of greenhouse gas as a car driven 10.000 km per year!! Do this month's green thing ( GO EASY ON MEAT

Friday, March 14, 2008

I am an addict

The dopaminergic areas of my brain are activated, giving me a feeling of pleasure via the so-called reward system; the serotonin is kicking in, which explains my obsessive behaviour. And I am on “a high” of noradrenaline that causes me excitement and self-assurance. I am not a drug addict. I am just in love.

Yesterday I learned that the brain reacts in a very similar way when we take drugs than when we kiss our loved one. Mara Dierssen, a researcher at CRG, illuminated me and about another 100 people on this subject, during a talk at the Palau de la Virreina. This was the closing event of the Brain Awareness week, which is organised by the American Society of Neuroscience and celebrated in 60 different countries at the same time. In Barcelona, Mara has been for years in charge of organising a series of talks and other events (including concerts) during this week, in order to reach the public and teach them some of the things we know – and the many we still don’t - about the brain.

And so yesterday we learned that if one where to look at the brain areas of people in love (or at mothers filled with maternal love for their children) one would see that the areas where negative emotions come from are inactivated, and so are those related to social judgements. This is why our partner, or our children, are always perfect to our eyes, and nothing they do feels wrong (…up to a certain point, of course!).

There were many other interesting questions raised. For example, is infidelity genetic, or can it at least be explained chemically? Well, scientific studies show that a genetic difference between two types of very similar mice makes them have very different behaviours: the first type (that have a long version of a specific microsatellite) are very promiscuous, while the other ones (with a shorter version) are monogamous. Oxitocine is a hormone that was also higher in this last group. Scientists have shown that when oxitocine was inhibited in the monogamous mice, they did not recognise their partner anymore. On the other hand, adding the short microsatellite to promiscuous mice made them more sociable and more likely to stay with the same partner… although only in about 3% of these, this new ‘monogamy’ lasted for their whole life. In any case, don’t start making any plans... Mara pointed out repeatedly that no human extrapolations can be made, although it seems likely that, as all complex behaviours, infidelity might have some genetic element, as well as a very important environmental influence.

So what is, in essence, the secret to a long and stable relationship? A high level of oxitocine, plenty of dopamine… and a constant delivery of chocolates, flowers and sweet tender words!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The IMIM Foundation IMIM will manage the international project GEN2PHEN

Due to their great experience in the management of complex projects and their reputation at an European level, the office formed by Carlos Díaz, Raquel Furió, Eva Molero i Nathalie Villahoz from the IMIM Foundation, has been selected to externally manage GEN2PHEN, an international project funded by the EC and coordinated by Leicester University (UK), in which 19 research institutions participate.

The aim of this ambitious project, with a budget of 12 M€ and a duration of 5 years, is to create technologies that help integrating the existing databases that show how gene sequences (genotype) contribute to the differences between individuals regarding disease, drug response and other characteristics (phenotype). This information will be very relevant for the future prognostic, diagnostic and treatment of several diseases such as cancer or cardiovascular diseases.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Pursueing the logic of life

Ricard Solé, an ICREA group leader at GRIB and external Professor at the Institute of Santa Fe (US), aims to understand what the common laws of organization of both natural and artificial complex systems are. This 45-year-old Catalan scientist received the Premi Ciutat de Barcelona in 2003 for his studies on the complexity of language. Now, his team is part of PACE, an interdisciplinary group of European researchers trying to build a very simple artificial cell that is able to self-replicate and evolve under controlled conditions.

How would you define life?
The consensus is that life is a system far from equilibrium with the capacity of auto replicating and evolving. It needs a compartment that isolates it (the membrane), an information system to adapt to new conditions (for example DNA) and a minimal metabolism. These are the three basic processes, and several studies suggest that life defined as such is the only possible solution to get an auto replicating system.

So if we were to find life in other planets it would have these same characteristics?
We believe so. But at a practical level, it is interesting to create a model that does not evolve, that always does that for which it has been designed. So, we have also created models without information, unable to evolve.

Why creating an artificial protocell?

To begin with, being able to answer the big question that human beings have been wondering for centuries: is it possible to cross the border from inert matter to life? And there are also potential medical and technological applications, such as cells that can capture CO2 or create biofuel, or cells that can substitute liposomes for medical treatments.

It certainly has great potential, but it carries ethical and security implications…
The cells we are trying to create are very simple and totally artificial: none of the three elements they contain exist in the wild. We use artificial genetic material called PNA (peptide DNA), as well as special lipids for the membrane. And the only metabolic reaction they do is not found in nature. It consists in capturing the light and breaking a precursor molecule into two pieces: one will be part of the membrane, and one of the information system. Therefore, these cells could not live outside of a very controlled environment and do not represent any danger. Other groups, however, start with a living organism and eliminate the non-essential elements until they get to the minimal genome. These modified organisms come from living matter and therefore they would have more opportunities to survive in the wild… In any case, in PACE we have annual meetings about ethics to talk about these issues.

How old is this field?

It’s been years that people are working on it, but until recently it was nearly alchemy. In the last 4 years several groups have started working on this seriously. Now the theoretical models are complete and, experimentally, we have managed to combine all possible pairs of the three basic elements. I think the missing step to integrate the whole machinery can be done in 3 or 5 years.