Growing yeast is easier than milking spiders


Yeast fermenter making spider venom proteinsVestaron

Spiders are not the easiest creatures to farm. Sure, you have the occasional tourist stop silk farm or pet spider breeder, but farming spiders—especially venomous web-building ones—on an industrial scale like chickens? Nope.

OK, you might ask, what could you possibly want to do with so many venomous spiders that is not nefarious? Spider venom is actually chock full of different proteins—some of which can, yes, kill you, but others that can be turned into drugs or insecticides. In other words, spider venom is damn useful. But milking a spider gets you only a thousandth or a hundredth of a milliliter of the stuff. The problem is getting enough of it.

That’s where synthetic biology comes in. Instead of milking spiders for venom, scientists can take the gene for a venom protein of interest and stick it inside yeast. The yeast act as little venom protein factories, and they grow and grow without fuss inside a vat. No spiders needed!

Michigan-based Vestaron uses this technique to make insecticides. “Spiders are the best insect predators in the world,” says Glenn King, who founded the company in 2006. Any single venom might have hundreds or thousands of different proteins, all with different properties. Vestaron uses a protein from the Australian Blue Mountain funnel-web spider for its venom-based insecticide, the first such product to get approval from the Environmental Protection Agency in 2014.

…And at a time when the EPA is increasingly concerned about bees, Vestaron’s product does not appear harmful to them either…

What has even higher profit margins though? Pharmaceutical drugs. King, who is no longer involved with the day to day at Vestaron, runs a lab at the University of Queensland in Australia, where he looks for spider venom proteins that can treat disease. His lab houses a collection of 500 spider venoms. (It is literally a lab staffer’s job to travel the world milking spiders.) Once they’ve found a promising venom protein, they also use synthetic biology to stick the gene into bacteria, manufacturing the protein at scale to study it more closely. King says his lab now has promising candidates to treat a form of epilepsy (from a Togo starburst tarantula) and stroke (from another Australian funnel-web spider).

And it’s not just the spider’s venom that can be valuable. The startup Bolt Threads is using yeast to make spider silk, a material whose wonder properties are better known than venom’s. The company’s scientists grow genetically modified yeast that manufacture silk protein in a huge vat; the protein is then extruded as thin threads of silk. “Yeast are industrial powerhouses that people have been using for over a thousand years to make beer, wine and bread,” says Bolt CEO Dan Widmaier. Indeed, humans domesticated yeast millenia ago for their products (alcohol, bubbles) in the same way they domesticated sheep for their wool or cows for their milk.

…Domesticating animals and plants has long been how humans have reshaped nature for their convenience. Synthetic biology is the next link in the chain.

I know a few folks who have doctor’s degrees in Molecular Biology. They’re cranky old geeks like me. Boy, do they wish they were starting out, nowadays. They have an endless list of projects they’d love to live long enough to complete.

All we get to do with yeast in our household is make our daily bread — and hard cider.

NFL will sack Georgia if they pass anti-Gay religious “liberty” law — UPDATED

Roger Goodell, commissioner of the National Football League, is on the cusp of becoming America’s newest gay icon.

Goodell, who has an openly gay brother, and the NFL have emerged as staunch allies in gay rights advocates’ efforts to defeat HB 757, the controversial religious freedom bill that passed the Georgia legislature late last week.

HB 757 began the year as “the Pastor Protection Act,” a measure giving clergy the right to refuse to perform same-sex weddings. But after two trips through the Georgia state House and Senate, the bill now gives faith-based organizations the right to hire and fire people who violate their “sincerely held religious beliefs,” as well as the right to refuse to rent facilities for events they find “objectionable…”

With every expansion of the bill, Georgia legislators were warned by local business leaders not to do to Georgia what Indiana legislators did in 2015, when their own Religious Freedom Restoration Act led to an immediate nationwide backlash, including more than 400 million #BoycottIndiana tweets in the week the bill passed.

A year later, local tourism officials estimate the city lost at least 12 conventions and $60 million in direct business as a result…

Along with LGBT advocates, major players in Georgia’s business community have ripped the legislation.

Coca-Cola, Home Depot, and Delta Airlines oppose it. Michael Dell, Richard Branson, and Jack Dorsey have all spoken out against it. SalesForce CEO Mark Benioff, who has 16,000 employees in Georgia, has warned he’ll pull as much of his business as possible out of the state, tweeting last week:

“Once again Georgia is trying to pass laws that make it legal to discriminate. When will this insanity end?

Some think a sports-mad community like Georgia will listen most of all to folks in leading sports. I think they’re as capable as anyone in the Confederacy of cutting off their noses to spite folks who refuse to kneel before the Georgia version of sharia.

And, BTW, you can add Marvel and Disney to the list of firms ready to boycott the state. Why make a movie in a place that might refuse a room to staff or stars?

UPDATE: Georgia governor vetoes anti-gay religious exemption bill

Georgia’s term-limited Gov. Nathan Deal took a stand against his own party and averted threatened boycotts by major corporations on Monday by announcing his veto of a “religious freedom” bill passed exclusively by Republican lawmakers.

“I do not think that we have to discriminate against anyone to protect the faith-based community in Georgia,” Deal declared.

The bill enumerated a list of actions that “people of faith” would not have to perform for other people. Clergy could refuse to perform gay marriages; churches and affiliated religious groups could have invoked their faith as a reason to refuse to serve or hire someone. People claiming their religious freedoms have been burdened by state or local laws also could force governments to prove there’s a “compelling” state interest overriding their beliefs.

All but 11 Republicans in the Georgia House and Senate voted in favor; all Democrats voted against it.

Deal said he could “find no examples that any of the things this bill seeks to protect us against have ever occurred in Georgia.”

Like most bigots, the things Georgia Republicans feared had never come to pass in the wake of the SCOTUS decisions on gay rights. No different from the days when the “modern” Confederacy crapped their drawers over an end to legal segregation, mixed marriage, the whole agglomeration of laws guaranteeing racist practices. Reactionary politicians centered in the Republican Party, nowadays – Dixiecrats BITD – try their damndest to sink the American Constitution as it proceeds slowly towards actual modern times.

The Party of NO continues to be the Party of Know Nothing, the Party of Do Nothing Useful.

Canada will replace government limousines with electric vehicles

electric parking lot GWN

Under the leadership of its Liberal Party and new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Canada has unveiled its latest budget. While much of the 2016 budget focuses on supporting and growing the country’s middle class…Canada also addresses a host of environmental concerns, including greenhouse gas emissions and alternative fuel technology. In fact, there’s a whole chapter on A Clean Growth Economy.

In the budget, Canada proposes setting aside $62.5 million Canadian for the alternative fuel infrastructure, which includes EV charging and natural gas and hydrogen fueling stations. “Early action is needed to support the transition to low-carbon transportation fuels, as vehicle choices made today will determine the mix of technologies on the road in 2030,” the budget reads. It is also expanding tax incentives to businesses to invest in EV charging and electricity storage. “These resources will also support technology demonstration projects that advance electric vehicle charging technology…”

Another $56.9 million is proposed for a cleaner transportation sector, which was responsible for 23 percent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2013. Included in this proposal is the development of international emissions standards for air, rail and marine transport. The budget also looks to improve life for city dwellers through improvements in public transport. As cities have expanded, public transit hasn’t kept up. Congestion and longer commutes are hurting businesses, families and the environment. The new budget proposes investing up to $3.4 billion in public transit over three years. “These investments,” the budget reads, “will help to shorten commute times, cut air pollution, strengthen communities and grow Canada’s economy.”

In the spirit of putting its money where its mouth is, the Canadian government has announced plans to get rid of its limousines and replace them with electric vehicles. In a country that has taken a hit from low oil prices…it’s a heartening gesture to see a focus on a cleaner economy and transport.

Mail me a penny postcard when our Republican-controlled Congress decides that language and guidance like this should be included in our federal budget. If they had their way, we’d probably still be using kerosene lamps for lighting.

Mexicans celebrate Easter by burning Judas Iscariot – just don’t tell Donald Trump


Click to enlargeAFP

Mexicans celebrating an Easter ritual late on Saturday burnt effigies of U.S. Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump, whose anti-immigrant views have sparked outrage south of the American border.

In Mexico City’s poor La Merced neighborhood, hundreds of cheering residents yelled “death” and various insults as they watched the explosion of the grinning papier-mâché mock-up of the real estate tycoon, replete with blue blazer, red tie and his trademark tuft of blond hair.

Media reported that Trump effigies burned across Mexico, from Puebla to Mexico’s industrial hub Monterrey.

The burning is part of a widespread Mexican Holy Week tradition where neighborhoods burn effigies to represent Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus Christ according to the Bible. The effigies are often modeled on unpopular political figures.

“Since he started his campaign and began talking about immigrants, Mexico, and Mexicans, I said ‘I’ve got to get this guy,'” said Felipe Linares, the artisan who crafted Trump and whose family has been making Judases for more than 50 years…

Judas effigies are burnt in villages and towns in several Latin American countries such as Venezuela and in parts of Greece. Anthropologists say the practice serves a symbolic function to overcome divisions and unite communities around a common enemy.

Burn, baby, burn!

Reflecting on discussions I’ve had with friends who properly call themselves Recovering Republicans – I have no doubt they would consider any traditional American [small-c] conservative who supports Trump a Judas, as well.