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Carla Nunziata via Wikimedia Commons // CC-BY-SA 3.0

Organism Designers Hack Biology to Make Smells From Scratch

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Carla Nunziata via Wikimedia Commons // CC-BY-SA 3.0

We may not have jetpacks just yet, but the future is definitely upon us. The genetic engineers (or “organism designers,” as they prefer to be called) at Ginkgo Bioworks are hard at work brewing up new smells.

The company started back in 2008, right around the time that DNA sequencing technology became more affordable. Scientists were sequencing genomes right and left, which created a wonderful library of genetic information. Biologist Tom Knight saw an opportunity, and teamed up with recent MIT graduates Reshma Shetty, Jason Kelly, Barry Canton, and Austin Che to form Ginkgo Bioworks. Their goal, Ginkgo’s creative director Christina Agapakis told Smithsonian, was “to make biology easier to engineer, and then to look at what that means for industry and technology.”

Ginkgo opened what they call a “foundry”—a laboratory where organism designers can pry apart yeast DNA and insert new and useful traits. “It’s like a rapid prototyping factory,” Agapakis said. “We can run many variants of different pathways and see what works in the right combination.”

Exactly what these organisms produce depends on what their clients are looking for. Some projects involve creating organisms that can capture carbon. Others are aimed at growing better probiotics. At the moment, Ginkgo is focused on making new smells. There’s a big market for synthetic scents and flavors, and innovation is at a premium.

Currently, Ginkgo is working to create a strain of yeast that smells like roses. The foundry was commissioned by French perfumer Robertet to recreate the scent of one particular rose that grows only in Turkey and Bulgaria. The roses must be picked and processed by hand, which is time-consuming and expensive. A yeast that smells like the finicky roses could be a welcome alternative.

“Yeast is awesome,” Agapakis told Smithsonian, “because we as humans are really good at fermenting yeast.” She notes that our species' predilection for beer has yielded all sorts of developments in yeast technology. In fact, Emily Greenhagen, the company’s head of fermentation, co-owns a brewery nearby with her husband. 

Another foundry is in the works, with plans to open up shop in spring or summer of next year. “The foundry is constantly iterating,” Agapakis told Smithsonian. “We’re always thinking about organism design and how to run it more efficiently.”

[h/t Smithsonian]

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Courtesy of Nature
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Scientists Create Three Puppy Clones of 'Snuppy,' the World's First Cloned Dog
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Courtesy of Nature

Snuppy, the world's first cloned dog, died in 2015, but his genetic legacy lives on. As the National Post reports, South Korean scientists recently described in the journal Scientific Reports the birth of three clone puppies, all of which are identical replicas of the famous Afghan hound.

Those who lived through the 1990s might remember Dolly, the Scottish sheep that gained fame for being the very first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell. Following Dolly's 1996 cloning, scientists managed to replicate other animals, including cats, mice, cows, and horses. But dog cloning initially stymied scientists, Time reports, as their breeding period is limited and their eggs are also hard to extract.

Ultimately, researchers ended up using somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) to clone a dog, the same method that was used to make Dolly. In the early 2000s, a team of South Korean scientists inserted DNA harvested from an Afghan hound's skin cells into a dog egg from which the DNA had been removed. The egg divided, which produced multiple cloned embryos.

The scientists implanted 1095 of these embryos in 123 dogs, an exhaustive initiative that yielded just three pregnancies, according to NPR. Of these, Snuppy—whose name is a combination of "puppy" and Seoul National University's initials—was the only survivor.

Snuppy died from cancer in April 2015, just shortly after his 10th birthday. To celebrate his successful life, the same South Korean researchers decided to re-clone him using mesenchymal stem cells from the dog's belly fat, which were taken when he was five. This time around, they transferred 94 reconstructed embryos to seven dogs. Four clones were later born, although one ended up dying shortly after birth.

The tiny Snuppy clones are now more than a year old, and researchers say that they don't think that the pups face the risk of accelerated aging, nor are they more disease-prone than other dogs. (Dolly died when she was just six years old, while cloned mice have also experienced shorter lifespans.) Snuppy's somatic cell donor, Tai, lived just two years longer than Snuppy, dying at age 12, the average lifespan of an Afghan hound.

Researchers say that this new generation of Snuppys will yield new insights into the health and longevity of cloned animals. Meanwhile, in other animal cloning news, a Texas-based company called ViaGen Pets is now offering to clone people's beloved pets, according to CBS Pittsburgh—a service that costs a cool $50,000 for dogs.

[h/t National Post]

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Food
Researchers Pinpoint the Genes Behind the Durian's Foul Stench
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iStock

Durian is a popular fruit in parts of southeast Asia. It's also known for having the most putrid, off-putting odor of any item sold in the produce section. Even fans of durian know why the fruit gets a bad rap, but what exactly causes its divisive scent is less obvious. Determined to find the answer, a team of researchers funded by "a group of anonymous durian lovers" mapped the fruit's genome, as reported by the BBC.

The study, published in the journal Nature Genetics [PDF], contains data from the first-ever complete genetic mapping of a durian fruit. It confirms that durian's excess stinkiness comes from sulfur, a chemical element whose scent is often compared to that of rotten eggs.

Analysis of the fruit's chemical makeup has been done in the past, so the idea that sulfur is a major contributor to its signature smell is nothing new. What is new is the identification of the specific class of sulfur-producing genes. These genes pump out sulfur at a "turbocharged" rate, which explains why the stench is powerful enough to have durian banned in some public areas. It may seem like the smell is a defense mechanism to ward off predators, but the study authors write that it's meant to have the opposite effect. According to the paper, "it is possible that linking odor and ripening may provide an evolutionary advantage for durian in facilitating fruit dispersal." In other words, the scent attracts hungry primates that help spread the seeds of ripe durian fruits by consuming them.

The revelation opens the door to genetically modified durian that are tweaked to produce less sulfur and therefore have a milder taste and smell. But such a product would likely inspire outrage from the food's passionate fans. While the flavor profile has been compared to rotten garbage and dead animal meat, it's also been praised for its "overtones of hazelnut, apricot, caramelized banana, and egg custard" by those who appreciate its unique character.

[h/t BBC]

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