One thing I have found about social media is that headlines featuring references to bodily functions always attract more readers. Today’s technology discussion is actually about software, but I promise to work it around to flatulence eventually, just to preserve my journalistic honesty.
When I was in college, back in the ‘olden days’ when computers still used punch cards, freshmen engineering students had to learn to use drafting tools and techniques and actually DRAW pictures of things on a piece of paper. Yep, T-squares, drafting tables, and drafting pencils were the tools of the trade for an engineer, along with something called a slide rule. But enough tripping down memory lane. The point is, computer technology eventually developed to the point where engineers can now use Computer Aided Design (CAD) programs to build up 3-D models of their cool widgets, and transfer that information directly to a computer controlled fabrication machine and just like magic, they can be holding a solid model or even a finished part in their hand, sometimes in just a few minutes.
But what about the flatulence? I’m getting there…
So these CAD programs are wonderful ways to increase efficiency and reduce both cost and time to market in the manufacturing world. But what if the thing you want to manufacture is, say, a new kind of bacterium? Can CAD systems help us engineer living organisms? I’m glad you asked, because it gives me a chance to talk about ….bovine flatulence.
But first, let’s talk about gene sequencing. As we all learned in our high school biology class, during those brief moments when we were not terrorizing the girls by hiding in their purses tiny preserved crustacean parts that we had just dissected, living things grow and develop according to a pattern of proteins called genes. These genes are composed of combinations of a few building blocks arranged in particular ways. The sequence of building blocks is responsible for directing some cells to be fingernails, for example, while other cells are mustaches. Smart biology type scientists have been figuring out how to adjust these building blocks to change how the cells function, in an attempt to create a master race of superhuman beings that will take over the world. Oops, sorry, didn’t mean to let the cat out of the bag.
Seriously, by altering the genetic makeup of the cells, all sorts of good things result, such as gene therapy for many different hereditary conditions, and such. Also, you can modify the structure of certain types of bacteria so that they produce less methane gas when digesting plant matter inside the gut of, say, a cow or a Talk Radio personality. But I’m getting ahead of myself again.
Dr. Jean Peccoud’s Synthetic Biology Group in the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute has just received a $1.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop a CAD system to design genes. His GenoCAD software is a collaborative framework for the entire research community, and Peccoud is making the code available through the International Society for Computational Biology (ISCB). Follow the links to learn more detail about GenoCAD, but let me just say that it will provide to the biology community the same sort of tools for designing living things that the regular CAD systems provided to the manufacturing and engineering communities.
Of course, just because they have this new GenoCAD system, it doesn’t mean that biologists will now be able to clone dinosaurs or create those cool creatures I saw in Avatar. Probably not. But it does mean that they might be able to make adjustments to bacteria that live in the gut of cows and produce huge, and I mean HUGE, amounts of methane gas from digesting plants.
So, we finally come to the part of the story about bovine flatulence. But since I have reached my word limit, I’ll just let you wander on over to this site where you can read all about how rumen methanogen bacteria in cows are responsible for global warming, and how tools like GenoCAD may be able to reduce gas production. In cows, at least.