Monthly Archives: August 2009

Clive Cookson

Europe’s hardware and DIY stores are preparing for a last rush this weekend to buy old-style 100W incandescent light bulbs. From Tuesday they will be not be available anywhere in the EU – victims of the battle against global warming. Lower wattage incandescent bulbs will be phased out over the next three years.

Their disappearance at the behest of Brussels has provoked protests from a wide range of traditionalists, who dislike the light emitted by new low-energy bulbs, besides the predictable howls from Eurosceptics and climate change deniers.

I too prefer the slightly warmer glow of an incandescent bulb. Whatever the manufacturers say – and I agree that there has been a huge improvement in energy-saving bulbs over the past couple of years – they do not quite match traditional lamps in the speed with which they come on or, more importantly, in the quality of their illumination.

Indeed I was tempted to join the hoarders who have laid in dozens of old-style bulbs. But, for a firm believer in the battle against global warming, that would have been outrageous hypocrisy. The phase-out is not just a token gesture, as some people seem to believe – it will cut European emissions of carbon dioxide by millions of tonnes a year.

Creating a huge market for low-energy bulbs gives manufacturers the incentive to spend money on research and development to improve their quality further. Today’s energy-saving bulbs are mainly what the industry calls compact fluorescent lamps or CFLs, as well as some (slightly less efficient) halogen bulbs. Given two or three more years of technical improvement CFLs really will match incandescent bulbs.

But the great hope for the near future is the light emitting diode or LED. This is far more versatile – and energy efficient – than the CFL and will produce instant illumination in any colour you want, from stark white to a warm mock-incandescent glow.

LEDs for domestic lighting are just coming onto the market and within a few years they will be ubiquitous. Then only the most nostalgic will be yearning for the incandescent bulbs of the past.

Clive Cookson

Another sign today of stem cell research becoming more commercial: An announcement that Stephen Minger, one of the field’s leading academics, will join GE Healthcare next week as head of Research and Development for Cell Technologies.

Minger, an American, has been in charge of stem cell biology at Guy’s Hospital and King’s College London since moving to the UK in 1996.

As well as being one of the top researchers into human embryonic stem cells in Britain – his lab has derived several hESC lines including ones with genetic mutations for cystic fibrosis and Huntington’s disease – Minger has been a fearless public advocate of stem cell science.

The relatively science-friendly legislative and regulatory framework for embryo research that has emerged in the UK owes something to Minger’s communications skills. He is one of the most open and media-friendly scientists I have come across, in any field.

Stephen Minger

Stephen Minger

“Leading GE Healthcare’s Cell Technologies research and development will allow me to bring many years of academic research in the stem cell field to bear in a commercial environment,” he says. “This is an opportunity for me to play a leading role in the realization of the emerging potential of stem cell technology in drug discovery and therapy, and to help grow a strategic business for GE Healthcare.”

GE Healthcare, part of the giant US General Electric group, is one of the world’s largest and most broadly based medical technology companies. It made clear its corporate ambitions in stem cell research at the end of June when it announced an exclusive alliance with Geron, the leading US stem cell company. Minger will, among other duties, lead the GE side of the Geron partnership. He will be based in the UK.

GE’s role in the commercialisation of stem cells will be to provide a comprehensive range of cells and tools for research and development. It does not intend to produce its own treatments.

Incidentally Geron has commented further on last week’s decision by the US Food and Drug Administration to put “on hold” its application to carry out the world’s first clinical trial of a treatment based on embryonic stem cells.  The product would treat spinal cord injury.

The California-based company says the FDA suspension relates to “microscopic cysts” that appeared on some animals during preclinical testing. Reassuringly, the cysts were not cancerous and had no adverse effects on the animals, so it seems likely that the clinical trial will go ahead soon.

“It is appropriate for the FDA to be particularly cautious about the first clinical trial of embryonic stem cells,” Minger says.

Clive Cookson

Sad news on my return from holiday. Chris Lamb, director of the John Innes Centre in Norwich for the past 10 years, died suddenly on Friday at the age of 59.

Chris was an outstanding plant biologist and a powerful voice for plant science, during a difficult decade when the environmental movement’s campaign against genetically modified crops made life difficult for his field of research in the UK and Europe.

By a horrible coincidence, Chris died just a month after the sudden death of Mike Gale, his equally eminent predecessor as JIC director.

Chris’s own research, which he managed to continue while running the JIC, focused on the way plants defend them against pathogens – and led to new ways of protecting crops against disease. He started his career at Cambridge and Oxford universities then spent 16 years during the 1980s and 90s in the US as director of the plant biology lab at the Salk Institute in California, before returning to the UK.

Although he himself did not work directly on GM crops, Chris was a stout defender of plant genetic engineering. It is a pity that he did not succeed in rousing more of his fellow plant scientists to become involved in the GM debate.

Chris’s articulate conversation and convivial nature made him a good lobbyist for the JIC and plant science. For example he hosted with Charles Clarke, the Norwich South MP and former Labour Cabinet minister, regular dinners at the House of Commons to discuss all aspects of science with politicians, journalists and other opinion formers.

The world of plant science will miss him immensely.

Chris Lamb in his glasshouse

Chris Lamb in his glasshouse

Clive Cookson

An interesting memo on “science and technology priorities for the Fiscal Year 2011 budget” has gone out from the White House to all federal departments and agencies.

Peter Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and John Holdren, head of science and technology policy, tell agencies to redirect spending from low priority areas to the administration’s “four practical challenges” – economic recovery, energy and climate change, healthcare and national security.

They should also focus on programmes that improve research productivity, strengthen education, build national infrastructure and enhance US space capabilities.

A fascinating passage of the memo urges agencies “to take advantage of today’s open innovation model – in which the whole chain from research to application does not have to take place within a single lab, agency or firm – and become highly open to ideas from many players, at all stages.”

That would mean transforming the closed mindset of many government departments and labs. Orszag and Holdren say they should “empower their scientists to have ongoing contact with people who know what’s involved in making and using things…”

“Open innovation” is a fashionable concept in science and technology policy circles. It would be excellent if the Obama administration could really make it happen within the US government.

Clive Cookson

The big feature I’ve most enjoyed writing for the FT so far this year is in today’s paper. Please take a look.

It’s about synthetic biology, which is emerging as a really hot field of research.

The most eye-catching project in synbio is what I’ve called biology’s “Frankenstein moment”: Craig Venter’s attempt to create a microbe from scratch, using lab chemicals. (Sorry Craig, I know you won’t relish that phrase.)

More significant are the efforts to re-engineer existing organisms, for applications from biofuels to medicine.

And, to accompany the article, my FT graphics colleagues have constructed an excellent illustration to show how synthetic biology works.

Clive Cookson

Leafing though the latest Scientific American, I am struck by an editorial attacking the agricultural biotechnology industry. Like the FT, SciAm believes genetically modified crops, used wisely, can improve farm productivity and reduce pollution – but the magazine is furious with their producers for allegedly stifling independent research into their products.

The problem is that Monsanto, Pioneer, Syngenta and the rest of the agbio industry impose user agreements that explicitly forbid the use of the seeds for any independent research. Under the threat of litigation, scientists cannot test a seed to explore the different conditions under which it thrives or fails.

They cannot compare seeds from one company against those from another company. And perhaps most importantly, they cannot examine whether the genetically modified crops lead to unintended environmental side effects. Only studies approved by the seed companies see the light of a peer-reviewed journal.

The issue has so far received remarkably little public attention. Insect scientists are beginning to speak out against the restriction but many are afraid to do so because they rely on the companies to provide seeds for their research, SciAm says.

Imagine pharmaceutical companies trying to prevent medical researchers comparing patented drugs or investigating their side-effects – it’s unthinkable. Yet scientists cannot independently examine raw materials in the food supply or investigate plants that cover a lot of rural America.

SciAm calls on the agbio companies to remove immediately the research restriction from their end-user agreements. And it says the US Environmental Protection Agency should require, as a condition of approving new seeds, that independent researchers have unfettered access to all products on the market. As the magazine’s editors say, “the agricultural revolution is too important to keep locked behind closed doors.”

Clive Cookson

The restart date for CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, the world’s most expensive physics machine, has slipped yet again. The Geneva-based organisation said last night that the LHC would start up in November – and run at a lower power than originally planned.

The LHC suffered a catastrophic short-circuit last September, just days after its triumphant opening ceremony and before physicists could use it to do any real experiments.

Since then CERN engineers have been scrutinising every electrical connection and every magnet in the collider’s 27km underground ring – and finding a disconcerting number of faults. That required several slippages in the restart schedule.

Now Rolf Heuer, CERN’s director-general, is going for a date in November. “The LHC is a much better understood machine than it was a year ago,” he says. “We can look forward with confidence and excitement to a good run through the winter and into next year.”

The initial operating power will be 3.5 TeV, half the original specification. But it will still be much higher than any previous atom smasher – and should be enough to give the thousands of physicists waiting to work on the LHC a new glimpse into the fundamental forces and particles that make up our universe.

Clive Cookson

If you want a vivid illustration of the way an infectious disease might spread around the world in an era of extensive international travel, take a look at the latest interactive creation by the FT graphics department.

Don’t take the model too seriously. It is an imaginary pandemic and is not based on any epidemiological model of a particular disease.

It’s more a computer game than a realistic simulation. But it does show how variations in the infection rate, virulence and incubation period of the pathogen can affect the course of a pandemic.

The world of research

The science blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

Clive Cookson, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about, in fields from astronomy to zoology. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education. He'll cover the weird and wonderful, as well as the serious side of science.