SfN 2009: Optogenetics – the second wave

There are heaps of posters and presentations this year about optogenetics — the technique developed just a few years ago at Stanford by Karl Deisseroth and Ed Boyden, in which neurons can be engineered to respond to light. There’s even a section of the press book on optogenetics. If this had been a year ago, I might have rolled my eyes and thought, “optogenetics is so 2005”, but it looks like the technology is riding on its second wave: it’s out there, people trust it, and now labs are using it in quite creative ways and actually discovering new things about the brain. A few people at the conference are already murmuring about a Nobel for optogenetics.  Read more

SfN 2009: NIH and neuroscience

In a first for the SfN conference, the director of the NIH — who ultimately holds the purse strings for most of the people here — made an appearance and addressed the crowd. Francis Collins began his talk with a facetious reference to some of the criticism he’s fielded since his appointment just months ago.  Read more

SfN 2009: Why fMRI is still useful

Functional MRI has been getting a bad rap lately, with recent papers and posters critical of fMRI analyses receiving a frenzy of media attention. These have generated a harsh reaction from the public; many journalist friends of mine have declared they’ll never write about an fMRI study ever again.  Read more

SfN 2009: Chicago got brains

The massive annual conference of the Society for Neuroscience hit the ground running today in sunny and crisp Chicago. It’s only day one and the conference center is already clogged with neuroscientists. Attendance is supposedly around 30,000 this year — a staggering number, but down from the conference’s peak a few years ago in Washington, D.C. when attendance almost hit 35,000 (and when travel budgets were a bit more generous).  Read more

ACS Washington 2009: Energy of the nearer future?

ACS Washington 2009: Energy of the nearer future?

This year ACS hosted a two-day symposium on the National Ignition Facility and a couple of the other big nuclear fusion efforts. Given the audience, most of the talks focused on the role chemists could play in diagnostics, i.e. detecting whether fusion actually occurs, and on the different sorts of experiments chemists might be interested in, like nucleosynthesis and stellar burning processes.  Read more

ACS Washington 2009: Living things!

ACS Washington 2009: Living things!

It’s the second to last day of the conference and the chemists are starting to head home. The hallways are quieter, the rooms less full, the Metro less forested by rolled up posters, the Power Bar options in the press room more limited. So I decided to give myself a little treat today: biological chemistry. As a life scientist by training, I’ve been rather out of my element the past week.  Read more

ACS Washington 2009: Fabrication

ACS Washington 2009: Fabrication

Today I started with a talk by Jack Szostak from Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard. I’d originally heard of Szostak because he co-discovered telomerase, but discovered he was no one-trick pony when he was name-dropped all over last week’s NSF Minimal Life workshop for his work on artificial cells. He’s trying to figure out the most basal brew of molecules capable of growing and dividing and even evolving.  Read more

ACS Washington 2009: Antibodies for weapons

In the spirit of this year’s theme at ACS, “Chemistry and Global Security”, I decided to stop by the symposium “Sensing and Destroying Chemical Warfare Agents and Pesticides”, where Kim Janda from Scripps was giving a talk about simple solutions to detecting weapons.  Read more

ACS Washington 2009: Quick-n-clean vaccines

ACS Washington 2009: Quick-n-clean vaccines

This morning at the conference, Charles Arntzen from Arizona State University talked about transforming plants into little green vaccine-manufacturing machines using engineered viruses. He helped pioneer the technique a few years ago when he made a vaccine against plague, and now he’s taken aim at norovirus, aka the “dreaded cruise ship virus”, which can hamstring people for a day or two with diarrhea and vomiting.  Read more

ACS Washington 2009: Pretty polymers

ACS is spread out across hotels and centers over at least a nine block-by-nine block chunk of downtown DC. There are shuttles rolling around but they rarely beat walking, so when you venture to a new location it’s best to be sure you want to stay for at least a few talks. I ended up grabbing lunch at one end of the stretch, so I thought I’d at least take a walk through the nearest ACS venue. Luckily I happened upon some fairly interesting talks about polymers — no huge breakthroughs, but certainly educational.  Read more