How about this for a science project? – reverse global warming, solve the world's energy crisis, and make life-saving antibiotics and vaccines...all you need to do is create synthetic life-forms, like bacteria which can clean up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, turn it into fuel and make a few vaccines on the side. Not as far fetched as you might think according to Dr. J. Craig Venter, who has just created the world's first synthetic cell. Welcome to the wonderful world of synthetic genomics.

This week's scientific breakthrough is chosen by human fertility expert Professor Lord Robert Winston and it belongs to Lazzaro Spallanzani, an Italian biologist, who was curious about sexual reproduction. In late 18th century, it was generally believed that mice, for example, could emerge spontaneously from a piece of cheese. Spallanzani proved this theory of 'spontaneous generation' wrong and what's more, showed what sperm is for.

One of the many knock-on effects of global warming is that as temperatures rise, pests and infectious diseases of the tropics will spread to more temperate zones. The most worrying of these is malaria, which affects nearly half a billion people worldwide. But there's some good news this week. Although Malaria could spread with increasing temperatures, the effects are not likely to be as bad as predicted, and our efforts to control the disease will be effective.

Hawaii's endemic birds have not had an easy ride, they’ve had to deal with habitat destruction, introduced predators like cats and rats and the introduced diseases, avian pox and avian malaria. Of more than 140 native species and subspecies that were present before humans arrived on the islands, more than half have been lost to extinction. Among the remaining 71 endemic forms, 30 are federally listed as endangered, and fifteen of these are literally on the brink of extinction, numbering fewer than 500 individuals. But conservation scientists at San Diego Zoo have stepped to help stop the decline and even to replace birds that have become extinct in the wild. Using intensive captive breeding and release techniques, they aims to re-establish self-sustaining populations of critically endangered birds. A total of 874 birds have been successfully raised since 1993.

When it comes to fighting the ageing process, nematode worms are the clear winners – able to change their metabolism to live five times their normal lifespan. Even mice, closer to us on the evolutionary tree, can be made to live a third longer. So why can’t we? Could science make it possible for us to live not only longer, but stay younger and healthier for longer?

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33 minutes

Last on

Sun 23 May 2010 03:32 GMT

Gravitational Waves

'Ripples' from black holes detected

Gravity and ripples in the fabric of space time - what do these mean for us?